Just a few months ago, immigrant rights supporters had hopes of passing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that would strengthen border security while also creating an urgently needed pathway to citizenship for the millions of people without documents who already live in the United States.
But in a surprise move, shortly before Christmas, the House of Representatives passed one of the most vicious anti-immigrant bills in more than a decade. If it were enacted into law, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 would make it a federal crime to live in the U.S. illegally, turning the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants into felons overnight. It would also make it a crime for social service agencies or church groups to shield or offer support to undocumented immigrants.
The extreme measures in this bill would have been unthinkable just a short while ago. It speaks to the extent to which immigration has become a political flashpoint for various groups who have come to see it as a major threat to the American status quo. While the immediate targets of this bill are those who cross into the U.S. without visas, Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), one of the bill’s main supporters, has declared that his ultimate goal is a moratorium on all legal immigration and the denying of citizenship to children born to noncitizens.
News of the harsh legislation has heightened anxiety in immigrant communities. According to Brendan Curran, a priest at St. Pius V Catholic Church in the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, “There’s so much fear, they won’t even call the police or fire department if something is going on next door. If this becomes law, nurses and priests will not be able to do their work.”
Faith institutions are often among the few forms of social support for people who have been separated from their families in other countries and shunned by native-born Americans. Churches and other faith communities are already dealing with the day-to-day struggles, especially poverty, faced by many immigrants. Draconian enforcement measures would make life that much harder, even for documented immigrants.
But according to Gabe Gonzales, lead organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), any new legislation passed by Congress this year is likely to be enforcement only. “There will be massive changes in border enforcement, including building a wall along the Mexican border,” said Gonzales. As a result, “the position of the undocumented will get incrementally worse. Harassment away from the border will increase along with increased enforcement of employer sanctions.”
Congressional sponsors believe that these punitive measures will force the undocumented to leave. But in reality, most have little to return to and will try to stay, falling deeper into poverty as they are restricted to working in the cash economy.
IMMIGRATION POLICY HAS become so contentious—and so tied to the health of our society—because immigrants and their children now constitute one in every five people living in the U.S. Today Latinos and Asians constitute roughly 75 percent of all immigrants living in the U.S. (of 28.4 million foreign-born residents in the country in 2000, 14.5 million are Latino and 7.2 million are Asian).
The Asian and Latino populations have increased since the 1965 reforms of the nation’s immigration laws. These reforms, which resulted from the civil rights movement, brought an end to decades of discriminatory policies that gave preference to European immigrants while completely excluding Asians from entering the U.S. This transformed the country into a much more profoundly multiethnic society than it had been in the past—changes that are having deep reverberations throughout American society.
The vast majority of immigrants come to the United States in search of a better life, making the difficult choice to leave behind their desperately poor families so that they can work in the U.S. and send money back home. Labor migration from the Southern hemisphere has increased worldwide as the pace of economic globalization disrupts traditional forms of economic activity. For instance, it is estimated that more than 1 million Mexican farmers were left without work as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Many of these immigrants will find work in this country’s expanding contingent labor force, where wages and working conditions continue to spiral downward. Jose Oliva, workers’ center network coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice, said that every one of the network’s 14 centers has received reports of human trafficking of immigrants within the U.S. In late January, one of the IWJ centers, the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, held an action outside the Ho Ho Employment Agency in Chicago’s Chinatown to call attention to a complaint filed on behalf of Gildardo Ferreira, a Mexican immigrant. The employment agency had sent Ferreira to work in a Chinese buffet restaurant in Michigan where he was housed in an apartment with 30 other workers, all sharing one bathroom, and forced to work 70 hours in five days. Only after an article on the case appeared in the Chicago Tribune did the U.S. Department of Labor finally agree to investigate.
Some immigrants come as refugees or asylum-seekers, fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands. This is far more traumatic than leaving as a willing emigrant. In many cases, members of the family have perished or have been left behind during the flight from their home country, so only a partial family has resettled in the U.S. Recent legislative measures will increase the trauma for many—the Real ID Act of 2005 included new restrictions for asylum-seekers.
Refugees also struggle economically. Thirty years after they first began to arrive in the U.S., many Southeast Asian refugees are still living in poverty, a sharp contrast to the common stereotypes of successful Asian immigrants. Before welfare reforms cut many of them off, nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asians were on public aid, the highest participation rate of any ethnic group. As of the 2000 census, 42 percent of Cambodian and 35 percent of Hmong refugees in the U.S. still lived in poverty.
U.S. policymakers have generally granted refugee status only to people fleeing countries where the regime was considered to be an enemy of this country, so Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Haitians fleeing U.S.-backed death squads are not recognized as refugees.
BY DEFINITION, NEW immigrants, with or without documents, are excluded from the privileges of citizenship. As a result of the 1996 welfare reforms, they are ineligible for most federal safety net programs. They are the least likely to have health insurance. For many this is temporary. For more and more of those who entered without documents, it is permanent; they truly live in the shadows. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that, in 2000, 39 percent of all Latino immigrants were in the U.S. illegally. There are also significant numbers of Asian undocumented immigrants, mainly from China, the Philippines, India, and Korea, some as the result of visa overstays, others who entered without documents.
The lives of the undocumented practically define deep poverty in America. These immigrants live in poverty or close to it while doing some of the most grueling work in the country. As the film A Day Without a Mexican drove home so poignantly, Latinos occupy an ever-present, yet virtually invisible, place in many Americans’ lives. For many new immigrants, day labor provides a foothold in the U.S. and a chance to gain work experience and skills. A recent national study found that three-quarters of all day laborers are undocumented immigrants. More than half reported having been cheated out of wages, and 73 percent said they had been made to dig ditches, handle dangerous chemicals, work on roofs or scaffolding, or otherwise be exposed to hazardous working conditions.
Tim Bell, who heads up the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, said that day labor drives down the labor standards of all workers in the U.S. because it undercuts workers’ ability to organize and creates an underground workforce that suffers abuses of their rights. He said that many big companies are outsourcing to subcontractors who in turn hire day laborers. Bell believes that if Congress creates a guest worker program it will lead to the creation of a massive international temporary workers labor market. “People feel like they’re paper cups. When the employer is finished with them, they just get thrown out,” said Bell.
The ICIRR’s Gonzales believes the only way this will change is if immigrant workers get some protective status so they can do collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions.
One of the urgently needed reforms would be to improve the status of children who entered illegally. While they are now permitted to attend public school, they are legally unable to work or receive federal financial aid to attend college. These restrictions contribute to very low high school and college graduation rates among Latinos, with only 52 percent completing high school and only 10 percent finishing college, according to census data. Recently a number of states have granted these children access to in-state tuition. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have reintroduced the Dream Act, which seeks to create avenues by which those young adults who have grown up in the U.S. could regularize their status.
Faith communities can be a key presence in positive immigration reform efforts. The Latino presence in the country, for example, is transforming the face of U.S. Christianity and challenging North American Protestant and Catholic churches to become more responsive to those who are living at the margins. Tom Chabolla, associate director for programs at the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, oversees the funding of organizations working in immigrant communities to gain access to health care, employment, and affordable housing. “The Catholic Church stands both at the center and at the margins of society, with immigrants at the margins and members with lots of power at the center,” Chabolla said. “The church uses its resources to stand with the immigrants to protect their dignity.”
Just as most immigrant faith institutions substitute for the extended families that have been left behind, such congregations also stand at the forefront of the fight for justice for immigrants.
“Right now the key issue for us is what’s going on in Congress,” said Curran, at Chicago’s St. Pius V. “We in the church go back to the fact that we don’t have borders in the churches. The kingdom of God has lots of rooms for lots of people who we might not like or agree with, but Jesus invited them in.”
As immigration reform advocates look ahead, they are drawing on the civil rights movement. “The lesson of the civil rights movement is that those who opposed black equality tried to pit whites against blacks,” said Gonzales. To win immigration reform that creates viable pathways to citizenship, “we have to reach out to the Anglo churches because that’s where the power is and to the African-American churches because we’re always getting pitted against each other.”
“What is being done in Congress is draconian,” said Minerva Carcaño, a United Methodist bishop in Phoenix. “The whole body of Christ—Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, pentecostal—needs to come together to hold up a vision of humanness.”
Helene Slessarev-Jamir, a second-generation American whose parents came to the U.S. in the 1950s, was a member of the National Hispanic/Latino Ministry Plan Committee of the United Methodist Church and director of urban studies at Wheaton (Illinois) College, when this article appeared.