By Connie Berry
Arizona’s deserts are a far cry from Syracuse’s wintertime whiteouts. The news accounts of the immigration debates there may seem removed from this diocese.
Bringing the issue home during a July 29 immigration reform rally in downtown Syracuse, Aly Wane, a local activist, said, “Here in Syracuse there are families where someone went to the grocery store and never came back.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) applauded the July 28 Arizona decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton to halt some of the most controversial elements of Arizona SB 1070 from going into effect. Catholic News Service (CNS) reported that the provisions would have “required law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of anyone stopped; made it a crime for immigrants not to carry proof of their immigration status at all times; allowed police to make warrantless arrests over suspicion of someone being in the country illegally; and criminalized the act of looking for work without the proper paperwork or hiring someone who lacks a work permit.”
Jose Perez is an immigration attorney in Syracuse and he deals with immigrant families on a regular basis. He has heard all the arguments against immigration such as “They are taking all our jobs,” “Get them off our welfare rolls,” “They are going to take my kid’s spot in college,” and other summations based on inadequate information.
“When people came to Ellis Island a hundred years ago there were no immigration laws,” Perez said. “As long as they didn’t have a disease, they were allowed in.”
Today, Perez said, there is no “end of the line” to get to the “back of.”
“I have clients who have been waiting for years for a husband, a wife, or children to come here so they can be together,” Perez said. “‘I’ll come back for you’ is not something you would want to say as a husband or a wife. That type of situation is what encourages people to try to cross borders.”
Perez conceded that Arizona has a lot of issues with gangs, drugs and other crime. “But that doesn’t mean that all immigrants are criminals. Most of the crimes committed in Arizona are not committed by undocumented people,” he said.
Then there’s the impact the undocumented have on the economy. Reports indicate that the undocumented are performing jobs that the rest of the U.S. workers are not interested in, such as labor-intensive farm work, janitorial jobs and cheap construction labor. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. comprising at least 10 percent of the low-skilled workforce, according to the independent Council on Foreign Relations. A 2007 report by the organization stated that there are now so many illegal immigrants that any process to legalize their status would be “prolonged.”
“The undocumented people here are not looking for a job; they are working,” Perez said. “They are working unskilled jobs — jobs most Americans don’t want.”
The fact that the illegal immigration issue brings racism to the surface is another facet that opens up more debate. Communities in New York, California and Arizona are facing increased violence toward Hispanics.
CNS recently featured a series of articles by Patricia Zapor, a writer from Arizona, on the impact the debate is having on the people in the state. Pastors there face challenges ministering to both illegal immigrants and Border Patrol agents.
Father James Geaney, a Tucson pastor featured in one of her articles, said that some families seem to have left without “a word to him.”
“It’s hard to say if people are scared to come out or if they went back to Mexico,” he said. “There is a sad feeling of being rejected. They walk down the street feeling as if people are thinking ‘you must be illegal, go home.’”
(The Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)