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Posted March 30, 2005

Toward Immigration Reform

U.S. Bishops Are Calling for Justice
for Foreign-Born People Who Emigrate to This Country

By Mark Franken

The Catholic Church has a rich history of scriptural and social teaching that addresses the question of immigration. Stories of forced migration in the Pentateuch led to commandments regarding strangers and the responsibility to be welcoming. In the New Testament, we see that the Holy Family themselves were refugees. The Gospel of St. Matthew tells us that we will be judged by the way we respond to migrants and others in need. In Exsul Familia, Pope Pius XII reaffirms the commitment of the church to care for pilgrims, aliens, exiles, and migrants. In Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II states that the ultimate solution to illegal immigration is the elimination of global underdevelopment and that, in the meantime, the human rights of all migrants must be respected.

In 2003, the bishops of Mexico and the United States jointly issued the pastoral letter Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. In this letter, the bishops say that U.S. immigration policy should protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and asylum seekers. The bishops also offer a number of proposed public policy responses toward that end.

To advance the principles contained in Strangers No Longer, the bishops have decided to mount a national campaign designed to unite and mobilize a growing network of Catholic organizations and individuals, as well as others of good faith. In addition, the campaign will seek to dispel myths and misperceptions about immigrants.

A decade ago, California voters passed a referendum measure that would have denied publicly financed health care to people, including children and the elderly, who did not have proper immigration documents.* Though later overturned by the courts, this public expression against undocumented people-and immigrants in general-provided a preview of a growing anti-immigrant sentiment taking hold in the country.

* California's Proposition 187 was approved in 1994.

Between 1965 and 1996, U.S. immigration policy derived from the politics of expansion and inclusion, resulting in increased numbers of immigrants and refugees coming to the United States. In 1996, however, this trend came to a dramatic halt. Driven by a politics of restriction and exclusion, Congress that year passed two pieces of legislation that had far-reaching repercussions for immigrants in the United States. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 altered the way immigrants are treated when it comes to having access to the basic "safety net" that all Americans rely on from time to time. This law denied immigrants (regardless of their ability to work) nutritional and medical safety net programs, such as Supplementary Security Income (SSI), food stamps, Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Although Congress, recognizing that it had gone too far in this legislation, has since restored some of these critical programs to some immigrants, for the most part, immigrants do not currently have access to the very safety net benefits that are supported by their taxes, simply because they are not citizens or legal residents.