Justice for immigrants?

By Paul Welch
Sun contributing writer

In 2003 the Bishops of Mexico and the U.S. developed five key principles for the migration of peoples between the two nations. In the document, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, these principles were laid out as follows:
1. People have a right to work in their country of origin.
2. Sovereign nations have the right to control their territory; but more powerful nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration.
3. Since the Catholic Church teaches that all goods of the earth belong to all the people, people have a right to find work in another country in order to survive.
4. Those fleeing wars and persecution should be protected by the global community.
5. It is necessary that basic human rights of all persons, regardless of legal status, be respected by all governmental bodies.
In early October, armed with the parish immigration petitions which generated 2,500 signatures and the Bishops’ Immigration Principles (above), Joseph Slavik, Diocesan Director of Catholic Charities; Deacon David Sweenie, Coordinator of Spanish Apostolate in the Northern Region; and I met with Congressman Richard Hanna of New York’s 24th District. Our intent was to share both the foregoing principles and the current legislative possibilities. Sweenie spoke knowledgably about the treatment of Hispanics by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. He recounted the stakeouts by ICE agents outside of churches on Sunday trying to detain Hispanics. Sweenie spoke of scenes in Fulton where a Hispanic teen with proper papers was twice detained by ICE agents. He talked of the humiliation of a Hispanic being sent to the Batavia Detention Center in his underwear.

We asked Congressman Hanna to intervene in situations such as these. He asked us to contact his office in such instances.

Rep. Hanna brought up a piece of immigration legislation, HR 3024, Access to Agriculture Labor Act, that is aimed at legalizing farm workers for dairy and other year-round farm operations. The U.S.  Labor Department has a large foreign worker program for temporary jobs, typically March through November, called the H2A program. Because dairy workers are needed year round this program does not serve them. HR 3024 is meant to modify the H2A program to fit dairy farms. Rep. Hanna clearly understood the pressure on Central New York and Southern Tier dairy farmers in trying to find competent help. We all agreed that the local farmers who were hardworking Americans and could not find skilled American farm workers should not be faced with bankruptcy or the criminal courts. Immigration should be their answer. Rep. Hanna asked us to follow up with Rep. Owens on HR 3024. Rep. Hinchey was already a co-sponsor of the bill.

We raised the E-Verify legislation being discussed in the House. E-Verify legislation aims to develop a comprehensive list of legal workers and share this list with all employers in the U.S.  Despite significant technical difficulties the U.S. Bishops are open to its implementation if and only if the current 11 million undocumented workers have a path to legalization and citizenship. Rep. Hanna said he is opposed to E-Verify legislation.

The DREAM (Development, Relief, Education, Alien Minor) Act is one of the lead parts of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Over 1 million young people have been brought to the U.S. by their undocumented parents. Due to the Plyer v. Doe case in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented children cannot be denied an education (through high school) because of their legal status.  Therefore, over 1 million youth have graduated from high school but are stymied in their efforts to work or do advanced studies. Almost all of these DREAM students know only the U.S. as their home. Many had no idea of their undocumented status until they asked their parents’ permission to get a driver’s license. Good numbers know little or nothing of their country of birth.

Ten years ago this DREAM legislation was introduced to give this worthy group a chance at citizenship. The conditions for eligibility include: youth must have come to the U.S. before 16 years of age; have stayed for at least 5 years; currently be under 30 years old; they must complete two years of college or military service. After all these benchmarks are completed, then the youths will have an opportunity for citizenship. We noted that the U. S. will need millions of new workers to keep Social Security viable in the coming decades.

Rep. Hanna did not comment on the DREAM Act.

Subsequent visits to federal legislators involved talking with their staff people. Rep. Owens’, Sen. Schumer’s and Sen. Gillibrand’s staff people took extensive notes on the issues outlined above. Aly Wane, an advocate for the DREAM Act, gave insightful presentations. The staff received the 2,500 signature petitions from the parishes of the Diocese.

We still need to meet with Representatives Buerkle and Hinchey.  Furthermore we’re hopeful that all federal representatives (not just their staffs) will meet with us in 2012 and declare their support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the DREAM Act.

We are grateful to the 2,500 parishioners who signed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform and DREAM Act petitions and the multitude of parishioners who reached out to farm workers and refugees in the past year. We have a great community going into 2012. Remember these people as we pray in the Christmas Season. The Holy Family is with them in their struggles. As Matthew 25:31-46 tells us, they are the Holy Family.

Paul Welch is the diocesan director of Social Justice Ministry.

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