The changing faces of immigration

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poster_for_coverBy Jennika Baines   
Sun Associate Editor

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made “Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice” the theme of this year’s National Migration Week (Jan. 2 – Jan. 8). The bishops encouraged parishes to focus on the difficulties facing families who must migrate and on the role economic underdevelopment has in the countries some families must leave behind.

Migration is the movement of people (sometimes seasonally) from one country or place of residence to another. This often goes hand-in-hand with issues of immigration, which is entering a country in order to settle there.

“Our country is founded on people coming here and building up the country. That’s our story, and somehow we’ve lost a little bit of that ethos,” said Paul Welch, director of Social Action Ministry for the diocese. “The bishops were very insightful to draw us back to that. This will make us stronger as a country and as a church.”

A special Mass beginning National Migration Week was celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 2. Welch said it was heartening to see so many Catholics from around the world present at the Mass. “That really gives you a sense of how America can and does excel,” he said.

Since the U.S. was founded, economic underdevelopment and religious persecution have forced many to come to America hoping for a better life. But when families migrate to the U.S. illegally, they often face entirely new hardships.

Diane Chappell-Daly, a lawyer who practices in areas of immigration law, said that undocumented workers face a host of dangers in the U.S.

“They’re not subject to legal protection and it creates a breeding ground for abuse,” she said. “They’re not integrated into society, they’re abused by employers, by criminals, and they can’t complain. It’s not good for the community and it’s certainly not good for the people.”

Each year, 140,000 green cards are available for immigrants whose skills fill needs in the U.S. workforce. This includes skills from highly-trained professionals like chemists and doctors as well as a subcategory for unskilled workers like farm laborers. Many immigrants to the Syracuse Diocese work as laborers on the area’s many farms.

For these farmworkers to get employee-based green cards, they must have an offer of employment from a U.S. business and their employer must be willing to sponsor them through a lengthy labor certification process which includes advertising the job and interviewing others who were considered unwilling or unqualified.

“We have such a shortage of visas to accommodate the demand for people,” Chappell-Daly said. There is a seven-year backlog for low-skilled and unskilled visas to the U.S. “Even if you qualify and meet all the requirements, you still have to wait at least seven years,” Chappell-Daly said. “There’s no employer who’s going to wait that long for an unskilled worker.”

She said 60- to 70 percent of immigration is therefore family-based, where a citizen can sponsor a spouse or immediate relative, or a child over 21 can sponsor a parent. But this doesn’t make the process much easier.

To begin with, immigration is an incredibly expensive undertaking. Filing fees for
employment-based visas were recently raised to $580. This process is difficult to do without a lawyer, creating an added expense. The green card costs $1,070 for an employment-based visa or $355 to $420 if a family is filing on an immigrant’s behalf.

Fees also include a medical exam at a consulate-approved doctor’s office. There may be an $85 fingerprinting fee. Police records must be supplied, as well as a passport, birth certificate, spouse’s birth certificate, marriage certificate, documents and photographs proving an on-going relationship if a spouse is the immigrant’s sponsor. Affadavits of support providing a sponsor-family’s detailed financial information may also be required. There is an interview and there are extensive forms to fill out. (For more information on the process required to get a visa, visit www.uscis.gov).

This is quite a change from the immigration process faced by many Americans’ grandparents and great-grandparents.

“Back in the early 1900s the emphasis was on medical issues — on making sure you weren’t insane or infirm,” Chappell-Daly said. “Less than five percent of people who came to Ellis Island were sent back.”

Restrictive immigration laws date back to 1875 when a law banning convicts and prostitutes was put in place.

“Old” immigrants who came from Northern Europe like the German, Irish and Scotch-Irish, mostly came to America in the 1880s. In the 1890s, the “new” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe started coming in — immigrants from Italy, Greece and Russia.

In 1892 the Chinese Exclusion Act was put in place to prohibit Chinese laborers from entering the country and taking jobs. A new law this same year also banned beggars, contract laborers, the mentally ill and unaccompanied children.

By 1917, adults needed to prove that they could read and write to enter the country. Most of the immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands were excluded from entering as well.

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants outside the Western Hemisphere to about 150,000 people a year. It based the percentage of immigrants allowed in from each country on the nationalities of the white population already living here. For instance, if 20 percent of Americans were of Irish descent, 20 percent of the total number of new immigrants allowed in would be able to come from Ireland.

It wasn’t until the end of World War II that harsh restrictions barring so many of the world’s nationalities were lifted. In particular, the “China ban” was lifted because China had been an ally to America during the war. The War Bride Act meant that soldiers could bring their wives and children back to America from abroad. There was also a Displaced Persons Act and a Refugee Relief Act.

In 1952 the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed. It got rid of restrictions based on race but kept quotas and restrictions on the number of immigrants from certain countries. An amendment in 1965 ended quotas based on nationality and instead put in place quotas for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and gave preference to visas for relatives of U.S. citizens and people with special skills. In 1978 Congress replaced the Eastern- and Western-Hemisphere quotas with one single world quota.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 granted amnesty to illegal immigrants living continuously in the U.S. since before 1982 and, among other things, put more responsibility on employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status.

The last major changes to immigration law in 1996 put in place an “unlawful presence bar” which means that those who stay in the country unlawfully for six months (through, say, an expired or violated visa) are barred from re-entry for three years. Those who stay 12 months or longer are barred for 10 years.

Chappell-Daly called these latest changes “devastating” for families. If a person has children or a job here, she said, and they find their visa has expired or they have unknowingly violated it, they’re now less likely to leave and re-enter legally. Instead, many choose to remain in the country illegally. “There’s more digging in, more people saying, ‘It’s not worth it,’” she said.

The change also expanded the grounds for excluding a visa for criminal convictions. Chappell-Daly said people who had green cards were now deported over a shoplifting conviction they had when they were kids 20 years earlier. Before 1996, a person’s character, tax history and level of responsibility were often considered when there was a prior conviction, she said.

Parishes throughout the diocese have taken part in events to renew their understanding of the situation facing migrant families.

Dean Brainard, a deacon-in-formation for St. Mary of the Assumption in Minoa and St. Francis in Bridgeport said the parish has embraced the cause of justice for immigrants for over 10 years. The parish sponsored a family from West Africa and helped them learn how to live successfully in their new community.

A team is being put together to create a sustainable ministry in the parish; faith formation classes are creating posters and banners about the cause, and immigration will be a focus of weekend Masses, homilies and petitions. Brainard said the parish is also considering sponsoring another family.

Connie Armstrong, director of catechesis for the Northern Region of the diocese, said a representative from Oswego County Opportunities who works with migrant families will speak at the February meeting of the Northern Region Catechetical Leaders. There are many migrant workers who live in Oswego County and who work on the area’s farms.

“In the early church and in the U.S. it was the European immigrants that the church worked with to acclimate to their new community. Now the immigrants have changed but the need is still there to bring Jesus to them, to bring the Eucharist to them and to bring them community and church,” Armstrong said.  “They’re not the same immigrants that they used to be but they’re still God’s people. And they’re hungry for church and for community and they’re hungry for God.”

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