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Immigration and Economics

Immigration questions have everything to do with economics. They also have everything to do with our Catholic faith, our Scriptures, magisterial teaching, and our tradition of welcoming the stranger.

We have rejoiced in the courage and leadership of the Cardinals and Bishops of the United States regarding the immigration bills which have recently passed in the House and Senate. A compromise must now be worked out in Congress.

As we speak, however, H. R. 4437, the Border Enforcement Bill of the House of Representatives, is still on the books. This law of the House still criminalizes the whole immigration phenomenon. Every undocumented immigrant is a criminal, a felon, anyone who helps them is a criminal, and anyone who hires them is a criminal and they all will go to jail. This Bill does not make any provision for the 11 or 12 million undocumented to apply for legal status, but demands that they all be deported at once.

The Senate has just passed their version of an Immigration and Enforcement Bill. The Senate Bill is an improvement over that of the House, in the sense that it does allow a path to legalization and citizenship, but it still includes harsh elements.

Now the conference committees of the two Houses begin negotiations and the negotiators from the House seem determined to keep out some of better elements of the Senate bill. And the Senate bill itself needs improvement.

The Senate Bill, called Comprehensive Immigration Reform, but called a multi-headed monster by the National Immigration Law Center addresses both enforcement and a path to citizenship for some of the undocumented immigrants in the United States.

It mandates 4,000 additional border patrol agents, 6,000 National Guard troops, at least 2,500 port of entry inspectors, and 10,000 agents to enforce employment verification laws; 370 miles of triple-barrier fencing, unmanned aircraft, cameras and other expensive technology to keep out potential crossers. It requires mandatory detention and makes expedited removal (removal without a chance to have an immigration judge hear the case) mandatory for individuals except Mexicans and Cubans detained within 100 miles of the border and within two weeks of entry.

A first reading the Senate bill is shocking—the section on smuggling reads almost exactly like the House Bill regarding those who assist immigrants in any way. However, some exception has been added for religious groups and non-profits and others who assist people, probably thanks to the Catholic Bishops.

The Senate bill provides for building more detention centers.

More employment visas are made available through this bill, although an amendment decreased the number originally planned. There are special pro-visions for agricultural workers.

For those undocumented in the United States who newly apply, the legalization process outlined in the Senate bill would take place on the basis of a three-tiered system, after the family reunification backlog is cleared. There would be a new family preference cap of 480,000, adding 260,000 per year to eliminate backlogs.

Tier 1: Undocumented immigrants who have been in the country five years or longer would be allowed to stay and be eligible for 6 years of work authorization and path to eventual permanent legal status, provided they pay back taxes, learn English and have no criminal records (this includes three misdemeanors).

Tier 2: Undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States two to five years would eventually have to return to a point of entry in Mexico or Canada and apply for readmission.

Tier 3: The roughly 2 million immigrants who have been in the United States illegally for less than two years would be ordered home.

This may not sound so bad until the text of the bill itself and the amendments added in the last days before passage are closely examined. The cost of fines and fees outlined in the bill for the legalization process (without lawyers’ costs) would likely exceed at least $4,000. This would prohibit many from applying. Unfortunately, it is also certain that many currently undocumented immigrants would not be able to legalize because of the complications and barriers in the Senate Bill.

It bars even a person who has US citizen or lawful permanent resident family members for admission, if they admit completing an I-9 form with a false Social Security number to get a job. This involves millions of people who will not be able to participate.

For many years, as long as we can remember at Casa Juan Diego, Central Americans have been processed and released by the INS. If they went to their court hearings they were immediately ordered deported, thus many did not go. This is a significant number of people. Amendments to the Senate bill would exclude these people from any possibility of legalization (unless they prove they failed to receive the letter or established that their failure to appear was due to exceptional circum-stances or can show that their departure would result in extreme hardship to a U. S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent or child).

There is a provision in the Senate bill for the Dream Act, to assist students

However, none of these provisions may take place because some leaders in the House of Representatives seem to be adamant about any compromise about legalization and want to focus only on enforcement. They comment,: “We must stop this hemorrhaging of people at the border,” before we can even consider a program for workers.

From our point of view we do need a comprehensive immi-gration law, because at this time immigrants have no rights, no recourse. They are mistreated in so many ways. Each day we hear their stories.

Some say, “Stop those immigrants from coming or getting anything. They might get what is ours. They’re just here to take advantage of the great American system. And why don’t their own governments help them, after all? It’s Mexico’s fault.”

What is missing from much of the discussion and debate—or the vehement rhetoric on talk radio against immigrants—is a realistic look at the whole question of why immigrants come and how they affect the economy of the countries which receive them. The United States is not the only country affected by this phenomenon. Poor people from countries from the South are desperately trying to enter those in the North, for example, so many Africans to Europe. John Paul II said a number of years ago that migration of peoples from one country to another had not occurred at these vast levels since the fourth century.

Why do immigrants come? Why do they migrate? Why do they face the terrors of the journey, of hunger, thirst, very possibly death on a boat or walking across deserts? They are hungry. Their children are hungry and they cannot find jobs in their countries which will pay enough for their basic neces-sities and schooling for their children. One has to have shoes and school supplies to go to school. They hope for a future.

Why Do They Come?–The Economic Factors

The most striking aspect of all the emotional debate about immigration is that there is no theory of causality—why are we not asking why people come, why there has been such an increase in immigration.

Policies which we, the United States, have been enforcing on poor nations for many years through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the world Trade Organization in the name of “Free Trade” and “structural adjustment” and especially the development of “maquiladoras” or outsourcing for the cheapest labor have long been a major cause of migration.

For Mexican immigrants, however, NAFTA is a cause beyond all others. The Washington Post has reported (2/8/2006) that NAFTA “which took effect in 1994, could not have been more precisely crafted to increase immi-gration—chiefly because of its devastating effect on Mexican agriculture.” NAFTA’s agricultural provisions resulted in a flood of subsidized corn being imported into Mexico from the United States. The effect in rural areas was that from 1.5 million to 2 million rural families were driven out of business. Because NAFTA’s labor rules did not provide Mexican workers guarantee rights in the workplace, urban workers did not fare much better. Octavio Ruiz has reported that workers in the vast export manufacturing sector, the maquiladora factories, workers earn one-fourth to one-half of their previous wages (Minneapolis Star Tribune 4/22/2006).

Ruiz also reported statistics from the Pew Hispanic center showing that “the number of immigrants to the United States from Mexico actually decreased by 18 percent in the three years before NAFTA’s implemen-tation. But in the first eight years of NAFTA, the annual number of immigrants from Mexico increased by more than 61 percent.”

At Casa Juan Diego, which was founded originally to give hospitality to Central American refugees, a great change took place after the passage of NAFTA. People from Mexico have been pouring in ever since its passage, since their lives became so difficult economically. Many have told of how their small businesses failed because they could not compete with multinational corporations such as Walmart, which opened hundreds of stores in Mexico after NAFTA. Thus the people had to emigrate.

The members of Congress most adamant against immi-gration at this time voted for NAFTA and to extend its provisions to Central America in CAFTA. According to Ruiz, if these lawmakers want to address the social and economic costs of the growing number of undocu-mented immigrants in the U.S., they should stop passing trade deals that destroy people’s livelihoods in their home countries.

The workers are throwaways. This neoliberal/neoconservative economy is based on the opposite of John Paul II’s teaching in his social encyclical, Laborem Exercens , in which he declared that the evaluation of the justice of any economy must be based on how the workers are treated. Another part of the reason people in the United States worry about immigrants and jobs is that the same neoliberal economics has left our own citizens with little job security.

The Big Lie

Many times attitudes in the U. S. towards immigrants are based upon the Big Lie, or rather Big Lies.

It starts off with the talk radio mentality—immigrants fly into Hobby Airport on one day and the next day get on welfare and live happily ever after.

First, they do not fly here—we never meet immigrants who have flown here. Mostly they walk or hop a train.

They cannot get any kind of welfare. This is not a part of the new law. No food stamps, no welfare checks for families, no Medicaid, no disability. About the only thing available for immigrants is schooling for their children and limited health care in serious emergencies in the emergency room.

People say undocumented workers are not wanted here, but as a matter of fact, our economy needs 500,000 new workers each year and is constantly searching for workers. Our farmers say they could not survive without them.

Simple arithmetic—anywhere you turn, you run into immigrant workers. Our economy is based on this cheap labor resource. They build our buildings, cut our lawns, take care of our babies, work at our restaurants, and clean our offices.

But workers also contribute much in terms of money. When you cash the check of an immigrant carpenter you discover that for his efforts he receives half a salary. We have never seen the answer to the question, “who gets the other half?” The immigrant is giving half of his salary to the economy. We have never heard people announce that the economy is good because immigrant carpenters give half of their salary to the economy. How many of you give half of your salary to the economy?

Great Saving

Another great contribution that the immigrants make to the economy is the under-utilization of medical services and social services. There is no easy access to these services. We speak with people who are ill or wounded each day and have two free medical clinics where volunteer doctors give their time and expertise. We meet people each day who have gone without medical care for long periods for lack of resources.

When an undocumented carpenter who has worked for years in the economy building the thousands of town houses and condominiums that surround us falls from a third story scaffolding and breaks his back in three places, the tax payers do not give one penny to this person for his care. Imagine the taxpayer savings that come from this law that says undocumented injured workers cannot receive any compensation as do citizens in disability payments.

We know this sick and injured population, as we care for and/or pay for 65 people to have a roof over their he ads.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, July-August 2006.