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A first step

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, January 22, 2004

The border fence near the airport in Tijuana, Mexico bears a grim memorial: hundreds of crosses, each marking the life of a man, woman, or child who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. While preserving the memory of these lives, cut short along a dangerous journey, the crosses also compel deeper reflection on the nature of the highly fortified fences dividing Mexico from the United States. These fences are in part the product of Operation Gatekeeper, a heavily publicized effort to heighten security at this, the busiest section of the border. Such security is only the most visible element of an immigration policy that often seems as confusing as it is controversial. Amid the many disagreements that divide interested parties, there is one point many agree upon: current American immigration policy is in deep need of revision.

It is at this point that agreement ends and deep division arises regarding the form this revision should take. So it should surprise no one that President Bush’s recent proposal to bring about major changes in U.S. immigration law drew criticism the moment it was unveiled. The plan includes provisions to allow illegal immigrants already in the United States, as well as individuals who apply from abroad, the opportunity to work the U.S. for three years. To gain such status, one’s employer must prove that no American desires the job in question. Immigration control advocates complain the plan rewards those who have broken the law by entering the country illegally. Others deem it a threat to the job quality of current American workers, liable to replacement by individuals willing to work for less money and fewer benefits. Immigration advocates claim the plan will result in the exploitation of workers, who face deportation should they not succumb to potentially unfair demands from their employers.

Churches and other proponents of social change have also commented on the legislation. The Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Migration had this to say in his own response: “While…an important first step in a long overdue reform of our immigration system, this particular proposal does not provide a solution to the serious problems we experience as the result of continuing undocumented migration and an immigration system that is broken. What is needed to respond to these problems is truly comprehensive immigration reform that will provide opportunities for legalization for the undocumented currently living in the United States, temporary worker programs with full worker protections and a path to permanency, as well as a reform of our family immigration system that will allow immigrant families to reunite in a timely fashion.”

Only time will reveal what final form, if any, legislation seeking to implement Bush’s proposals might take and whether it will pass into law. Many have already complained of the seemingly political nature of its timing. The President has already acknowledged that politics were involved in his decision. This should of course surprise no one, being as the election is less than a year away and Hispanics are fast becoming one of the nation’s most important voting groups. There is also concern that the plan, unlikely to be implemented prior to the election, will be quickly dropped by congressional Republicans should Bush be reelected, allowing the President to use the issue to his political advantage now and then drop it when no longer of use. Regular readers of this column will know that I do not hesitate to criticize this administration. That being said, I believe the President’s interest in this issue prior to September 11 bespeaks an honest desire to, at a minimum, revise American immigration policy and at most, reveals some level of concern for the situation of undocumented workers here in the United States. Be that as it may, President Bush’s proposal has ensured that an important, complex and at times confusing issue will receive attention during the coming political election. Such attention is, at the very least, a first step toward improving current policies.

American consumers -who enjoy agriculture and other goods produced in large part by undocumented workers – and the unfortunately far less numerous group of American voters, would serve themselves well by examining this issue in depth. They might thereby avoid the knee jerk nativism that should be foreign to a land of immigrants as well as naïve notions of reform that lack careful consideration of economic and political repercussions within and outside of the United States.

Last evening members of the Notre Dame community gathered for the first session of a four-part series entitled “Strangers No Longer: Catholic Responses to Migration.” The series will examine the issue of migration from pastoral, political, and economic perspectives while also spurring discussion regarding ways in which individuals and churches can support migrants in their own communities and advocate for fair and just national policies. A complex issue such as immigration reform demands committed, reasoned, and informed dialogue. I encourage readers to join this series and enter into a debate that is crucial to our nation and to the lives of those whose predecessors are now remembered by crosses on a fence.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.