Here’s the dilemma; the puzzle that I’d like you to think about.
How do we justify, to ourselves, to immigrants, to our God, the compromises that will be necessary to accomplish two important goals: 1) to enable 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. to get right with the law, to gain legal status in this country; and 2) to ensure that people who cross our border in the future can come without risking their lives in the deserts and mountains, and without going deeply into debt to people-smugglers to help them avoid those perils?
Those are very important policy goals. But achieving them, through new legislation, will require the kinds of political compromises that may be repugnant to us. Those compromises may violate our moral code, our intellectual and spiritual integrity. How do we justify them?
I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma for many years. When my economist colleagues at the University of California at San Diego tell me that it’s most efficient and rational for labor to be able to move freely from one place to another, rather than be constrained by geographical borders, I see the merits of that theory, but I realize that open borders are a non-starter, politically.
When I, as a political scientist, see that the politicians debating immigration reform in Congress, as we speak today, are willing to cut all sorts of deals in order to get more votes for themselves and their political party in the next election, deals that make little sense in terms of what is good public policy, should I dismiss the partisan political motives and focus on what good might come from the deals?
When Scripture tells us, as it does in Leviticus 19, that “when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, the stranger shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself,” how do we honor that scriptural mandate, if we endorse the kinds of deals that our elected representatives are striking on immigration policy?
Let me give you a few specific examples of the dilemma that I’ve been wrestling with.
How many guestworkers should we allow into the country in a given year? I’m talking about visas that allow someone to work here in seasonal or other temporary jobs, in agriculture, construction, or other industries. The U.S. used to have a large temporary worker program, called the Bracero Program, from 1942 to 1964. We abolished it due to political pressure from labor unions.
Now it is generally recognized that some short-term, low-skilled, low-paying jobs are unlikely to ever be filled by U.S.-born workers, especially in agriculture. We currently have millions of undocumented workers in these jobs. The group of Congressmen who recently drafted an immigration reform bill agreed that we should give 20,000 guestworker visas a year to low-skilled workers. That number could rise to 75,000 visas a year by the fourth year of the program. Business groups had been pushing to allow 400,000 guestworkers to come each year. Organized labor wanted far fewer. The compromise was 20,000 – 75,000 visas a year.
My point is that none of these numbers is based on any economic reality, the number of low-skilled immigrant workers that the economy needs. Instead, they are purely political judgments about what the traffic will bear; what special interest groups will accept.
Is it better to have 20,000 guestworker visas a year, or zero?
And what about legalizing the roughly 11 million undocumented workers already here? Creating a path to legalization for these folks, most of whom have been living in the U.S. for five to ten years and are never likely to return to their home country, is the single most contentious issue in the current immigration debate.
Opinion polls show that at least 70 percent of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants should have the option of remaining in the country with some form of legal status. But should they have the right to eventually become citizens? And how long should that process take, and with what hurdles along the way?
Enter the politicians. Under the proposals currently being discussed in the Congress, it would take ten years to get a green card, permanent legal resident status, and another five years to become a naturalized citizen. For at least the first ten years of this fifteen-year period they would be in legal limbo. They would have probationary status visas, not subject to deportation, but having none of the rights and securities of green-card holders or U.S. citizens.
Why not move undocumented immigrants more quickly to citizenship? Or at least enable them to get green cards after a few years, if they meet certain requirements?
Because too many members of Congress believe that the undocumented must be punished for their illegal entry, and that giving them an easier, quicker path to legalization would be a powerful magnet for people who would not otherwise have migrated.
But there’s not a shred of evidence from scientific research or the historical record that supports the notion that legalizing today’s undocumented immigrants would flood the country with people who would otherwise have stayed home. If they need to come, for economic or family reasons, they will come, whether or not their undocumented U.S. relatives get legalized.
The political reality is that most Republicans in Congress don’t want to increase the number of green cards to enable today’s undocumented to get legal status within a reasonable period of time. Our existing visa system has a backlog of more than four million people who have been approved for green cards and are waiting in line for visas. The wait for Mexicans is especially long, because only about 47,000 visas are available to Mexicans each year. Some Mexican-born children of U.S. citizens must wait 20 years for visas.
Why not get rid of rigid numerical caps on visas, especially for high-demand countries like Mexico? Again the reason is politics. Seeming to reward Mexico by making the number of visas proportional to the size of the country’s population is especially unpopular in Congress.
But the whole notion of creating a path to legalization for today’s undocumented may be an illusion if members of Congress insist on making a legalization program contingent on controlling the border even more tightly than it is today. Current proposals include even heavier spending on border enforcement, and there is a trigger for legalization: a requirement that the Department of Homeland Security certify to Congress that the entire U.S.-Mexico border is under operational control before a single undocumented immigrant can be put on a path to legalization.
The reality is that new illegal immigration is now down to levels not seen since 1971, and no amount of new spending on border enforcement is likely to deter significantly more Mexicans from trying to come. Sealing the border even more tightly will only cause would-be migrants to take greater risks by crossing under more dangerous conditions, and more of them will die in the attempt. Nearly 8,000 migrants have already died since we began to seriously enforce the border in 1994. It’s the most systematic violation of human rights happening on U.S. soil during the last two decades.
So where does all this leave us, as concerned citizens, as educated persons, as people of faith?
My personal conclusion is that we have no better choice but to cheer on the politicians who are crafting an immigration reform, however imperfect, incomplete, and even wrong-headed the result may be.
Congress has been paralyzed on the immigration issue since 2007. This year, because of last year’s election results, there is a real chance to break that logjam and possibly benefit some portion of today’s undocumented population by giving them a chance to get right with the law. And as for future migrants, a new guestworker program, however limited in scope, would enable at least some of them to enter legally and avoid a perilous trek through the desert.
Perhaps by passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill, however flawed, we will have turned the corner on a period in which immigration control policies were intended mainly to punish, exclude and demonize immigrants, rather than enable them to develop their full human potential.
But if a bill passes this year, we should be vigilant about documenting the human consequences of the politically motivated compromises that will be necessary to get it done. Faith-based communities will have a special responsibility for holding politicians’ feet to the fire on this issue. And for helping undocumented immigrants navigate what will undoubtedly be a very difficult and protracted process to get permanent legal status. Not just in getting through the paperwork but helping them meet one of the key requirements for legalization, like becoming fluent in English.
Only being proactive in these and other ways can we honor the strong Scriptural mandate to embrace the needs and rights of immigrants in our midst.
When our presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, preached at St. James-by-the-Sea five years ago, almost to the day, she put it this way:
“We are all aliens. We’re the ones living outside of God’s dream, the heavenly city. We’re the ones waiting outside the gate, eager to build a new city where all will be citizens of the household of God. In a real sense, none of us gets to be a citizen until we all are. The next time we meet an alien, will we recognize Jesus in our midst?”
Professor Cornelius has been studying Mexican migration and U.S. immigration policy since 1970. His current research is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the Ford Foundation and the Open Societies Foundations. Last year the president of Mexico awarded him the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest decoration to foreign nationals, for lifetime contributions to the improvement of U.S.-Mexican relations.