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National leaders debate immigration

Kaitlynn Riely | Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Four leading voices in the national debate about immigration reform spoke to the Notre Dame community Monday about showing compassion for the illegal aliens living within American borders while enforcing immigration laws.

Ray Suarez, a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the moderator for the third annual Notre Dame Forum, opened the event in the Joyce Center with a film that provided a face for one of the roughly 12 million immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally.

The Mexican immigrant knew she was breaking the law but entered the U.S. anyway to live and work so she could pay for her daughters’ educations. But the immigrant, the video showed, was caught, and is certain she will face deportation.

In the film, Notre Dame theology professor Father Daniel Groody spoke about Catholic social teaching on immigration.

“A nation has a right to control borders,” he said. “But it’s not an absolute right. In controlling its borders, it must respect human rights.”

Balance between the humanitarian aspects of the immigration debate and its economic, political and legal considerations was a topic the panelists debated – with much disagreement – for nearly two hours.

The panel members were Louis Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz.

Napolitano said she confronts the issue of immigration daily in Arizona where, she said, 4,000 illegal immigrants are apprehended daily.

Napolitano said the U.S. needs better border security and better documentation, but also must provide more visas to keep up with demand.

The hard part of the debate, Napolitano said, is to decide what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.

“Dealing with those 12 million who are already here and have already raised their families here … is a very difficult issue to confront,” she said.

It is an issue that Barletta has already tried to address. In 2006, Barletta signed an ordinance that would punish businesses and landlords in Hazleton that knowingly hired or harbored illegal immigrants. The city is currently fighting in court challenges to the constitutionality of the ordinance, which has not yet gone into effect.

Hazleton’s greatest asset is “the quality of life that we enjoy,” Barletta said. Criminal activities committed by illegal immigrants motivated him to enact the ordinance to discourage illegal aliens from living in the town, he said. Barletta offered several examples of violent crime committed in Hazleton by illegal immigrants, including a domestic stabbing incident and murder.

“It’s unfortunate because not everyone who is here is working hard and a nice person,” he said.

Martinez, who is the only immigrant in the U.S. Senate and the first Cuban-American to hold a Senate seat, disagreed with Barletta’s claims about criminal tendencies of illegal immigrants.

“I realize that in any group there are going to be those who are here to work hard and those who are here to make trouble,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that the U.S. Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform this summer. Congress needs to sign a bill, Martinez said, that secures the country’s borders while recognizing U.S. labor needs. The bill should also confront the problem of the millions of illegal immigrants living within U.S. borders, Martinez said.

The Catholic Church has “walked with every single wave of immigrants” – both legal and illegal – since the 1780s, said Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles.

“We have a moral responsibility to deal with the 12 million people that are here,” he said. “I’m saddened and disappointed at the inability of our Congress to pass meaningful legislation.”

The division created by the issue of immigration was evident in several exchanges between panelists. Mahony, after listening to Barletta describe his city’s ordinance, told him the ordinance – and others like it – are creating fear within immigrant groups across the country.

The Catholic Church, Mahony said, would not issue similar dictums.

“We will serve anybody who comes,” he said. “We will never be asking for documents for our schools, our parishes, our sacraments, whatever. We are just not going there.”

When Suarez asked if the Catholic Church could take an a la carte view toward the civil code, Mahony responded that if a law restricts the right of the Church to minister to the people, the Church has a “higher law that supersedes it.”

Mahony’s statements garnered applause. Suarez then asked the audience to stop clapping for the remainder of the two-hour forum and “do moral reasoning on a somewhat higher level than ‘yeah,’ ‘boo.'”

Some audience members spoke toward the forum’s end, when Suarez allowed several Notre Dame students to ask prepared questions.

Michelle Saucedo, a sophomore from Arizona, described how her father was deported to Mexico seven years ago, which left her mother in charge of supporting and raising four children.

Family separation was a familiar experience for Martinez, who said he was away from his family for four years when he first arrived in the United States. He agreed with Napolitano’s earlier assessment that the government must issue more visas to keep up with the demand.

Sophomore David VanEgmond asked a question that Napolitano said got to the basic point of the debate. The illegal immigrants who have entered the U.S. have committed a crime, he said.

“Why show them a disproportionate amount of compassion?” he asked.

The simple answer to the question, Napolitano said, is if you are here illegally, you should go. But the complicated reality, she said, is that the U.S. government can’t just deport 12 million people.

The real answer must be a compromise through which the government prohibits illegal aliens from gaining citizenship unless they fulfill specific requirements, such as paying a fine, waiting in line behind those going through the process legally and learning English, she said.

The system must allow illegal immigrants to “get out of the shadows,” Napolitano said.

The federal government has failed to reform the immigration system, Napolitano said, so state and city officials like she and Barletta have had to move forward independently.

Martinez said he recognized the stress the federal government’s failure to enact reform would put on state legislators.

“One of the sad legacies of our failure to act is that cities across America will do what Hazleton has done and the other cities will become sanctuaries,” he said.

Barletta said that his town’s proposed ordinance has created a ripple effect, as many of the illegal immigrants in Hazleton have moved down the road to neighboring communities.

According to a News and Information article, about 3,000 people attended Monday’s forum.

The forum was the third since Father John Jenkins was inaugurated as University president. The 2006 forum addressed the global health crisis, and in 2005 forum participants discussed the role of religion and faith in a pluralistic world.