Student Reflections

Michael McKenna

October 8, 2007
Reaction to the Immigration Forum

On the screen prior to the beginning of the Forum, a quote by the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals caught my attention, "The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?" Through conversations with immigrants at La Casa del Migrante, shelters in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, and at an immigration law office where I worked in suburban Philadelphia, I can assure that love does not stop at the border for millions of transnational immigrants. And my own journey as a student of the immigration debate began out of love that went mas alla las fronteras, beyond borders. My eyes were opened to the complex relationship of the U.S. and Mexico during a service-learning trip in high school to Tijuana sponsored by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

I came to love the unique culture of the border region, and experienced a type of spiritual fulfillment stronger that one week than I ever had previously. The trip left me with countless unanswered questions about the migration phenomenon, questions I explored more in depth during the summer after freshman year at La Casa de Migrante in Tijuana through the Center for Social Concerns' ISSLP program. Those two months put a human face to the questions and helped me see firsthand the brokenness of our current immigration policy. Thus, I consider myself an advocate for immigrants, both legal and illegal, but my emotional attachment to the issue has also been tempered by an effort to get to know the law and the politics during an internship at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and as an employee at an immigration law firm.

Now that it's clear where I'm coming from, I need to turn my attention to the excellent discussion held today by some esteemed panelists. We heard analysis at the federal, state, and local levels as well as Fr. Mahoney's take on the issue rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, which is one important lens to consider in the debate. All of the panelists agreed that the current immigration system fails to meet the needs for all the parties affected: weak on security, not economically viable, poor in its ability to promote human dignity, and untenable for the regional governments most directly affected. The common response then, is comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), generally described as containing four key components: improved border security and documentation, greater allocation of visas to immigrant-sending countries, a guest worker program that meets our country's labor needs, and a path to legalization for the 12 million immigrants already in our country.

The Senate bill that failed during the summer and Governor Napolitano's remarks clarified that last component, often decried as akin to amnesty, by insisting that undocumented immigrants would pay a fine and back taxes and receive temporary legal status, remaining ineligible for adjustment of legal status until all current applications in the green card back log have been processed. These are important elements that likely will be included when Congress is next brave enough to tackle the issue, which sadly will most likely not be until after the next election cycle. As engaged citizens who will be involved in that debate again, it is important to be familiar with some of the reasons why CIR was never passed.

Some on the political right insisted that the pathway to citizenship essentially amounted to amnesty, even with prominent Republicans like Senator McCain, Senator Martinez, and Senator Kyl pointing out the nuances of the bill. Many progressives were upset with the bill because they feared the guest worker program would create a permanent class of unskilled laborers susceptible to exploitation, such as that which exists with Asian labor in the Gulf States. Many of the students with whom I have spoken were drawn to Governor Napolitano's balanced stance on immigration policy, upholding the rule of law while acknowledging the human face of the issue and therefore the need for compassion. Thus, in keeping with the call to a construct a legal system that upholds human dignity, the details of the guest worker program must ensure that labor rights are maintained and monitored.

As it stands now, undocumented immigrants can easily fall prey to a system of exploitation because they have no few officially recognized rights, which is why a path to citizenship is so important. Furthermore, as most of the panelists pointed out, the undocumented population that is already established in the United States have families and livelihoods in communities in this country and therefore will not return to their country of origin.

Nevertheless, current laws actually have the unintended consequence of keeping cyclical migrants on the U.S. side of the fence. With the increased restrictions on the Southern border, it has become far more risky for immigrants to leave after a job is completed or for family visits, when historically, return to the homeland would have been the action taken. As Senator Martinez pointed out, local and state governments need to consider the consequences of enacting laws to fill the void created by federal inaction. But here we see a case in which the federal lawmakers should have applied the same level of scrutiny in looking at the long and short-term effects.

At the conclusion of the debate, it was apparent that if the federal government benefits from international migration to the U.S., the effects on state and local governments was more ambiguous. It is true that these local governments absorb the costs of education, medicating, and adjudicating undocumented immigrants. But we need to avoid misplaced causality for the decline in the quality of services available to citizens. A week ago Professor Karen Richman, Director of Migration and Border Studies at the Institute for Latino Studies, and I facilitated a discussion in a residence hall, after which we came to the conclusion that immigrants put pressure on aspects of our American society that are already inadequate and long-neglected in their own much needed reform. Are immigrants causing a health care crisis, or are they straining a fractured system? Are immigrants causing crime or are poverty and lack of access to institutions that foster integration behind some of the incidences for which a minority of the immigrant population is responsible?

As a result of this renewed attention highlighted by the new tensions brought on by an influx of immigrants, the immigrant becomes the scapegoat. Instead of working for community integration through which cities can address these issues collectively, the debate polarizes around the perceived threat against the rights of the native-born versus the immigrant "other," which seems to have been the case in Hazleton. As students, now that we have heard a solid overview of the debate through the Forum, so we need to be especially careful in simplifying the dialogue in this way.

Mayor Barletta painted a fairly pristine picture of life in his town pre-immigrant, while glossing over the fact that Northeastern Pennsylvania has been declining economically for decades, arguably since the decline of coal mining after World War II. To ascribe all subsequent problems to immigrants is a classic case of scapegoating. The crimes he described were indeed horrific, but to suggest that they were committed by undocumented people on a scale disproportionate to their makeup in the population is difficult to believe. Also, a large percentage of the Latinos in Hazleton are Puerto Rican, who are by law U.S. citizens. But by creating a political climate of fear, very likely these U.S. citizens will suffer the social consequences as well.

Despite the characterization of immigrants as laborers for many industries like agriculture, food processing, and the service sector, a more recent economic role of the immigrant entrepreneur was barely mentioned in the Forum. These entrepreneurs help revitalize economically depressed communities, opening small businesses and strengthening communities. Take a drive down Western Avenue in South Bend and you'll see what I mean. A paleteria (ice cream shop), panaderia (bakery), a grocery, a clothing shop that sells Quincenera dresses, several restaurants, and yes, an agency that helps with taxes, have all opened along that formerly destitute stretch in the Western part of South Bend. Prior to the Mexican settlement, this part of town was a Polish enclave. According to Hazleton's Chamber of Commerce, the same thing happened along the city's Wyoming Street.

To conclude then, it seems that immigration will never cease being an issue for the American public. If not Mexican immigrants, new waves of migrants will fall on our shores, and it is imperative that informed citizens do what we can to handle those inflows ethically and in a way that is economically sustainable. Since the next round of CIR deliberations is still a long way off, then, perhaps it's best to start at the local and fight for small gains as they present themselves. Specifically, I'm talking about two actions that Fr. Mahoney encouraged us to take: 1. Advocate for the passing of the DREAM Act and 2. Get to know an immigrant.

First, the DREAM Act will help students whose futures are cut short by a legal status they had no role in bringing upon themselves and will facilitate that the next generation of immigrants will enrich American society in the way they always have by sharing new ideas and perspectives. Take the time then, to contact your leaders on Capitol Hill and ask them to take a stand on this humanitarian bill.

Secondly, visit some of those places I mentioned in our own community. Or talk to some of the incredible students in your own classes who are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrant parents who made great sacrifices to ensure a life of opportunity here. Most importantly, keep this debate going by engaging your peers and your parents in dialogue on the questions the Forum stimulated, by challenging yourself to be an informed and concerned citizen.