by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It is a gray issue that can’t be painted black or white.
That was the consensus of the recent El Centro panel discussion on immigration reform in Kansas City, Kan.
El Centro, which provides educational, social and economic opportunities for Hispanic families, organized the panel to help people understand the Supreme Court hearing of Arizona vs. the United States.
“This is kind of a crucial time in the immigration debate,” said social justice consultant Bill Scholl, who oversees the Justice for Immigrants Task Force in the archdiocese.
At the center of the controversy is whether key provisions of the Arizona law are preempted by federal rules. In other words: Can states decide on their own how they’re going to enforce federal immigration laws?
The panel consisted of local immigration experts, including immigration attorney Angela Ferguson, El Centro policy consultant Melinda Lewis and ACLU attorney Holly Weatherford.
Ferguson, who started out in immigration law during the Reagan administration, said she never imagined we would be having this discussion 25 years later.
“The 1986 amnesty missed,” she said. “They legalized four million people, but forgot about the future.”
Panelists agreed that the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform has forced states to look at making their own policies.
“Congressional inaction created a vacuum,” said Weatherford. “And states have stepped up to fill that vacuum.”
Lewis said the Arizona bill was a bad idea for five reasons: It’s expensive, divisive, dangerous, short-sighted and unjust.
“It is incumbent upon us to understand, even if the Supreme Court decides the legislation can go forward,” she said. “It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t.”
Everyone agreed that reform is needed, but many questions stemmed from that resolve:
What kind of reform?
How should it be enforced?
How can we make sure it is morally just?
“Some people say, ‘Well, the way you fix it is through enforcement only,’” said Scholl. “‘Make it really hard to get in here, and make it really bad for people who are able to get in here illegally, so they leave.’”
On the other extreme is the idea of granting amnesty to the 11 million immigrants living in the United States today without documentation.
But many view that response as a reward for those who have broken the law.
“They’re not criminals,” argued Ferguson. “They’re people here seeking a better life.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops are advocating for a reform of the current immigration system that includes reasonable enforcement as well as a reasonable road to citizenship.
“What they’re doing is saying we’d like to see a comprehensive approach, which includes better enforcement, but also some pathways for people to become legal,” explained Scholl.
The current system has created a shadow culture, hiding an underground economy rife with human rights abuses.
“Employers don’t have to follow OSHA, employers don’t have to pay worker’s comp,” said Scholl. “Employers don’t pay just wages because they know their workers have no legal recourse.
“Not to mention human trafficking and smuggling.”
There are moral principles that need to guide the discussion and inform the debate on immigration reform, he continued.
Primary among those is family unity — creating reform that allows immigrants to keep their families intact.
Another important aspect is making sure charitable organizations are not penalized for helping undocumented immigrants.
“The Arizona law would make that a crime,” said Scholl. “And it would put an undue burden on charities to ascertain the immigration status of anyone they’re helping.”
After the panel presented information on the issue, audience members had a chance to ask questions.
Then Jeff Hill, coordinator for AIRR (Advocate for Immigration Rights and Reconciliation), gave a short talk about how audience members could become more involved with the immigration reform issue (see sidebar).
Mary Lou Jaramillo, president and CEO of El Centro, was pleased with the turnout for the discussion.
“I was pleased and impressed,” she said. “The questions that came from the audience were very insightful.”
Reflecting on the discussion, Hill said immigration has been a theme throughout the history of our faith, and we can turn to the Bible for answers to the dilemma of reform.
“Time and time again,” he said, “we see the importance of caring for the immigrant in our society.
“And we know, just as Jesus said: ‘Whenever someone was without a home and you gave him shelter, you were giving shelter to me.’
“That sort of idea is critical to living in a manner that reflects the truth of the Gospel.”
“My faith really tells me we must embrace all of humanity, regardless of where we come from,” she said. “I think we’re put on this earth to love one another and to serve humankind.”