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Immigration: a human and moral issue

Archbishop Wenski's column for the September 2022 edition of the Florida Catholic

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Labor Day should mark more than the “official” end of summer. This holiday pays tribute to the workers who created our nation’s wealth and strength. At the same time, in honoring the working man and woman — and in recalling the contributions of the labor movement in our society — we acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of human work. Work allows us to participate in God’s own work of creation and affords us the means to support our families and contribute to the common good of all.

This Labor Day finds us as a nation struggling with the difficult and important issue of immigration. Immigrants — whether they arrive through official legal channels or not — come seeking work and a better life for their families. And whether they come as skilled or unskilled workers, agricultural laborers, or to join family members already working here, they come, in part, because U.S. employers need their labor. Since the “Great Resignation” during COVID, our economy is crying out for more workers. 

Our broken immigration system is a problem; but immigrants themselves are not “problems.” Immigrants have been good for America and America has been good for them. Agriculture relies heavily on them to harvest our crops. Our meat and poultry industry, which offers some of the lowest paid and highest risk occupations in the U.S., has a workforce that is almost half immigrant. Our hospitality industry, not to mention our ever-growing health care sector, relies extensively on foreign-born workers. Without immigrants’ labor, our economy would have larger gaps. 

While reasonable people may disagree on how our nation should respond, any effective response demands that we recognize that immigration is more than a “border security” issue but is essentially about our labor markets and the men and women who fill the jobs that continue to make America strong. 

Immigration is not just a political issue, but a fundamental human and moral issue. For the immigrant workers are not faceless numbers — but human persons. They are our brothers and sisters; they are our neighbors and co-workers. Justice and prudence demand that we treat them with dignity and find a reasonable way for their contributions and presence to be recognized within the law. 

Congress has been loath to address this issue. Too many on both sides of the aisle have been content to use immigration as a wedge issue to appeal to their bases. However, there already exists in our immigration law a provision called "registry,” in effect since 1929. Registry allows people who arrive before a certain date to obtain status and eventually citizenship. In 1929, the entry date for registry was 1921. If immigrants had good moral character and had resided in the country since 1921, they could apply for permanent status. 

This program recognized the equitable ties developed in the U.S. over a long period of residence. It has allowed many who have owned homes, started businesses, and had American-born children to remain. Congress last advanced the registry cutoff date in 1986 when it moved the date forward to Jan. 1, 1972. In order to use the registry program today, an immigrant would need to have lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years. By changing this date to Jan. 1, 2012, Congress would be able to legalize much of the undocumented population. A recent attempt to include advancing the date for registry in an appropriations bill was disallowed by the procedural rules of Congress. Nevertheless, Congress should not give up on setting a more reasonable date for registry.

Many of the immigrants who entered the country in recent months have been released by U.S. authorities to pursue asylum or other remedies. However, because of huge backlogs, it would take years, if not decades, for their claims to be adjudicated. If Congress would allow the registry date to advance automatically into the future, these backlogs could be eliminated, which would result in a timelier and more efficient adjudication of asylum. 

Meanwhile, because of the extensive backlog of cases, the Administration should grant work permits, renewable periodically, to those permitted to pursue their claims in U.S., as was once the practice. This would allow them the dignity of working legally and at the same time address the critical labor shortages our country is experiencing today.

As a son of an immigrant from Poland who as a priest worked most of my life with immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere, I have shared in the daily struggles and dreams of those who come to this land seeking freedom and opportunity. I have witnessed their resolve to give their children a better life. And this is why I am convinced that America, founded on the ideals of liberty and justice for all, can and must find reasonable and responsible ways to welcome them. By helping those without legal status to come out of the shadows and contribute more fully to our communities, we can, at the same time, strengthen the security of our nation and the vitality of our society. 

The immigration debate this Labor Day challenges us to consider again who we are as a nation, how our economy treats all workers, and how we welcome the “strangers” among us.

Comments from readers

James Hazelton - 09/17/2022 01:02 PM
To call people ugly Americans just because they disagree with you is disgusting and shows who you are. How many illegals have younhelped?
Valli Leone - 09/14/2022 06:48 PM
Thanks, Archbishop, for this truthful article and for reminding us of the mercy and compassion we all should have for God‘s people from every country and experience. I am grateful for their hard work and for the humble service of so many immigrants. My father, too, was an illegal alien who came to this country from Italy in the late 1930s. The American dream came true for him and for us as his children. Praise the Lord! Jesus, change the hearts of the “ugly Americans“ who think that this land belongs to them and who eagerly shun others. 🔆❤️🔆