Bishop Thomas Wenski drew on Catholic social teaching and the Jewish holocaust to put a tight frame around the discussion of illegal immigration during a 2004 conference at Notre Dame on migration and theology.
“I think we can make a summary of Catholic social teaching in one phrase: No human being can ever be considered as a problem,” said Wenski, then chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.
“When we consider a human being as a problem, we depersonalize him, we offend his human dignity,’’ he said. “When we allow any class of human beings to be categorized as a problem, then we give ourselves permission to look for solutions. And as the history of the 20th century has proven, sometimes we look for final solutions.”
It was a provocative warning, drawing a straight line between anxiety about illegal immigration and the atrocities of the Nazis. Nevertheless, anger about the federal government’s failure to stem the flow of mostly poor, poorly educated workers from Latin America has swept the country, spreading from familiar territory in California to small towns and big cities in Indiana, Iowa, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
At a time when globalization is bleeding away millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs that once provided immigrants a path to the blue-collar middle class, and when multiculturalism and ethnic pride have sought to discredit old notions of Americanization and melting-pot assimilation, the cultural, political, economic and demographic stakes of the influx are enormous.
The populist charge against illegal immigration is led by such figures as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who rails against “broken borders" and what he calls the abandonment of American workers by an indifferent and incompetent federal government.
It is joined by such environmental advocates as former journalist Roy Beck, founder of the grassroots restrictionist organization NumbersUSA, who warns that unbridled immigration could push the nation’s population from its current level of about 300 million to half a billion by the middle of the century
Most provocatively, it is boosted by radio talk-show hosts and by self-styled border watchdogs called Minutemen who proclaim their willingness to enforce the nation’s borders if Washington won’t.
Meanwhile, immigrant advocates—with Wenski and his fellow bishops in the lead—have rallied to the defense of the undocumented. They have joined hundreds of thousands of the immigrants at rallies from Los Angeles to New York.
With a boldness and political daring, they call their efforts a new civil rights movement and demand that the federal government provide legal status to the estimated 13 million illegal immigrants who have taken up residence in the country.
The politics of immigration produce the strangest of political bedfellows. The alliance of advocates is even more powerfully eclectic than the coalition of restrictionists.
“It lines up the Wall Street Journal editorial page and right-wing libertarians like the Cato Institute with left-wing liberals like the ACLU,’’ said demographer Michael Teitelbaum. “And it brings in ethnic lobby groups, church groups, employer organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”
The electoral implications have seized the attention of the White House, where President Bush’s advisors fear that the crusading anti-illegal immigration efforts of such conservatives as representatives Tom Tancredo of Colorado and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin will permanently estrange the rapidly growing Latino vote.
“It’s a dangerous game the Republicans are playing,” said Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, who warned that Republicans nationally should take a lesson from former California Governor Pete Wilson.
Wilson, a Republican who won re-election in 1994 after sounding the alarm against illegal immigration, antagonized Hispanic voters who saw racist undertones in Wilson’s campaign and moved heavily into the Democratic column.
“Maybe in the short term it helps you win elections,” Muñoz said. “But in the long term it helps convince Latinos that this isn’t a party where they can be comfortable.”
An anxious America
Immigration restrictionists want a crackdown. They claim that a flood of illegal immigrants threatens to overwhelm communities, drag down wages, strain social cohesion and harden into a new underclass. They scorn legalization proposals as an amnesty that would reward illegal behavior and invite more illegal crossings of a vast southern border that in many places is marked with a three-strand barbed-wire fence.
Immigration advocates say only an offer of legal status, including a path to citizenship, can end the exploitation of workers too fearful to organize and halt what they call the wink-and-nod hypocrisy of employer-friendly federal policy. One former official of the Mexican government described it as “Don’t come, don’t come. But if you can get past the Border Patrol, we have a job for you.”
Immigrants, legal and illegal, clearly boost economic growth. Some work as engineers and entrepreneurs at the highest levels of the economy. Many others provide cheap, flexible labor that serves not only business but also homeowners with lawns to tend and parents with children to care for. As consumers, they benefit retailers, grocers and landlords.
While most of the gains generated by their labor are privatized, primarily benefiting employers, the costs associated with low-wage immigrants tend to be socialized. They are absorbed by taxpayers who pay for the schools, hospital care and other social services needed by a rapidly rising population concentrated at the bottom end of an increasingly polarized U.S. economy.
As the illegal immigrant population nationwide has been growing at a rate of about 500,000 per year, the influx has ratcheted up the competition for jobs and housing and social services. While illegal immigrants are not entitled to welfare benefits, their U.S.-born children are.
“It puts a big strain on the system—on schools, hospitals, roads, everything,” said Joel Kotkin of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Kotkin celebrates the history of U.S. immigration, saying it “has been an incredibly positive force" in the growth and development of the country. But he understands the concerns of those like a county commissioner in Georgia whose recent complaint to The New York Times about Mexican immigrants—“They done took over the population"—expressed the widespread bewilderment at a decade of stunningly fast immigration growth far beyond the million or so immigrants who enter the country legally each year.
“There is a huge anxiety out there,” Kotkin said. “A lot of people feel a sense of displacement, a sense that there is no control.”
That came through loud and clear to Columbus, Indiana, Mayor Fred Armstrong a few years ago, when he called federal officials about the surge of Mexican immigrants to his town about an hour south of Indianapolis.
Armstrong said he was told: “If you’ve got a guy who’s murdering people, we want to know about it; otherwise we’re not going to deal with it.”
The failure of enforcement
In 1986, Washington declared that it had outlined a solution to illegal immigration. Congress passed legislation intended to combine the compassion of amnesty for illegal immigrants with the toughness of a crackdown on employers. In Los Angeles, an INS official declared that employer sanctions—fines and jail sentences for those who knowingly hired illegal immigrants—“put real teeth into immigration reform.”
While amnesty went ahead as planned, enforcement flopped. A counterfeit-document industry sprung up overnight to produce the phony social security cards and drivers licenses that workers produced to demonstrate that they had a right to work in the United States.
The failure was predictable because Congress had ignored the centerpiece of a national strategy outlined in the 1981 report “U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest.” The report was written by a blue-ribbon panel led by Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, then president of Notre Dame and former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The report drew a clear line between legal immigration, which it called “useful in every important respect,” and illegal immigration, which “erodes confidence in the law generally, and immigration law specifically.”
Hesburgh and his fellow commissioners said that in order to maintain public commitment to the “front door" of legal migration, Congress needed to take firm action to shut the “back door" of illegal immigration.
The centerpiece of their immigration reform proposal was a national identification card to ensure that all persons who applied for jobs were eligible to work.
Civil libertarians and immigration advocates reacted angrily, warning that Hesburgh would put the country on a slippery slope toward Big Brother totalitarianism. President Reagan’s secretary of the interior, James Watt, helped to ice cabinet-level discussion of the card when he declared: “I would like to suggest another way that I think is better. All we have to do is tattoo an identification number on the inside of everybody’s arm.”
Suggestions that those who want to stop illegal immigration have a more sinister motive have long cast a pall over the national debate.
“Even timorous attempts to initiate an honest public discussion of the issue can earn one the cheap slander of ‘racist,’" says Victor Davis Hanson. A classics scholar, Hanson is the author of Mexifornia, a book that argues that mass illegal immigration has overwhelmed the state’s capacity to incorporate newcomers.
When Hanson came to Washington to discuss his book, he was harangued as a “xenophobe" by an aide to U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who, like most Democrats, favors broad-based legalization.
Yet Father Hesburgh was not the only progressive voice that called for serious steps to stem illegal immigration. More than a decade after his report, as public opinion polls recorded persistent public frustration about illegal immigration, yet another special commission reported to Congress. This one was headed by former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, who echoed many of Hesburgh’s concerns.
“If we are to preserve our immigration tradition and our ability to say ‘yes’ to many of those who seek entry, we must have the strength to say ‘no’ where we must,” Jordan said as she presented the plan to Congress.
“Any nation worth its salt must control its borders,” Jordan insisted. And that, she said, required a computerized registry that employers could check, drawing on information provided by the immigration authorities and the Social Security Administration.
Congress once again balked, not wanting to antagonize the powerful left-right coalition of immigration advocates that saw the National Association of Manufacturers make common cause with the National Council of La Raza. President Clinton, meanwhile, effusively praised Jordan’s work but did nothing to advance it.
Unwilling to take the decisive but politically dicey choices that Jordan said were needed, federal authorities poured themselves into managing the political dimensions of illegal immigration. In order to calm border communities most affected by the illegal flows, they mounted such localized operations as Operation Gatekeeper, which began in San Diego in 1994, massing Border Patrol resources to squeeze illegal crossings from Tijuana.
San Diego residents were relieved, and property values near the suddenly calmed area shot up. But the migratory stream continued, though it detoured away from urban areas and into the desert. There the migrants paid a price not only in rising smugglers fees but also in deaths due to exposure to the desert’s brick-oven temperatures.
Demographer Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute drew the political moral of the story.
“It’s much easier to build more fences and put more people at the border and try to make life more difficult for illegals than to try to bring employers in line,’’ said Passel.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service did make one concerted effort to roll back the wave of illegal hirings, launching Operation Vanguard in 1999 at meat-packing plants in Nebraska.
Doris Meissner, who directed the INS at the time, said the firestorm of criticism stirred by the industry, church leaders and immigrant advocacy groups forced her to shut it down. “I certainly didn’t understand the support that existed among churches and other humanitarian organizations" for illegal immigrants, said Meissner.
New growth centers
In 1986 illegal immigration was largely a matter of _campesinos_—Latino peasants—leaving seven or eight states in central and northern Mexico and moving along immigration lines established by the _braceros_—field hands invited to the United States between 1942 and 1964. Most immigrants in those days headed for the fields of California and Florida. Some also headed to Chicago neighborhoods once settled by workers beckoned by now-moribund steel plants.
Immigration economist Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, says the 1986 one-year amnesty program led to a vast territorial expansion of the immigrant communities that have become a powerful second magnet for illegal immigration.
First, it allowed Mexican immigrants to move out of farm work in the West and into new kinds of jobs in new places.
“They quickly saw that it was easier to get ahead with a construction job in Phoenix or in the Midwest,” Martin said.
Second, amnesty provided immigrants with permanent residence, allowing them to bring relatives legally into the United States.
“One thing led to another and networks were established,” he said. Then word went back to Mexico that there were new places where other Mexicans were willing to help migrants gain a foothold in the United States. So amnesty granted to illegal immigrants created a magnet for more illegal immigrants.
Mexican demographers report that 96 percent of Mexico’s 2,420 county-sized municipios send immigrants to the United States. The exodus is the churning human equivalent of a downpour that suddenly floods a river with the flow of a thousand new streams.
Now the Latin American diaspora has spread across the United States, from Oregon to Nebraska to the East Coast. Demographer Passel calls 19 states “new immigration growth centers" because their foreign-born, largely Mexican populations grew by at least 50 percent in the 1990s.
Katharine Donato, an immigration scholar at Rice University in Houston, said those effects converged with a broad U.S. economic expansion that made businesses desperate for workers.
Unlike previous waves of immigrants who had tended to concentrate in large cities, Mexicans were willing to spread into Small Town America, Donato said. She added that such a dispersal was encouraged by the relative ease of travel and the portability of popular culture.
“You can get Televisa almost anywhere now,” she said, naming a popular Spanish-language television network, widely available on cable.
Meanwhile, immigrant entrepreneurs opened restaurants and shops and Spanish-language radio stations to provide the familiar flavors and sounds of home. Immigration, even of the illegal variety, lost some of the old, fearful features of a shadowy life in a strange land.
Harvard’s Samuel Huntington is troubled by the panorama. “Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream,’’ he wrote. “ Demographically, socially and culturally, the reconquista of the southwest United States by Mexican immigrants is well under way.”
Similar concerns were voiced more than 100 years ago, when the last major immigrant influx drew millions of desperately poor from Eastern and Southern Europe. Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, for instance, warned that the newcomers came from “races most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes . . . and do not promise well for the standard of civilization in the United States.”
Immigrant advocates today confidently invoke the success of that last immigrant wave to predict that today’s immigrants will duplicate their achievement of the American dream. Restrictionists point pessimistically to the intense concentration of Spanish speakers among today’s immigrants and to the nation’s steady loss of blue collar jobs that allowed immigrant families to achieve the American dream.
But in many places around the world, particularly in rural areas where farm workers compare their poverty with gleaming televised images of life in America, the pressure to emigrate remains strong.
Immigration fever has spread from Mexico and Central America into South America, drawing Peruvians, Ecuadorans, Colombians and Bolivians by the tens of thousands. The most recent surge has been from Brazil, where an entire industry grew up to exploit another fundamental flaw in American border policy.
Smugglers flew young Brazilians to Mexico City, bused them to the border and hired rafts to float them across the Rio Grande. Instead of instructing their clients on how to avoid the Border Patrol, the smugglers directed them to seek out the patrol. They had learned that because the Border Patrol lacked the budget or facilities to hold non-Mexicans for the several weeks it took to process them for deportation, the immigrants were being released—with orders to appear for an immigration hearing once they reached their destination.
The instructions, which demoralized Border Patrol agents sardonically called “orders to disappear,” were routinely ignored, as the released immigrants—including many from other countries—disappeared into American society.
Stories about the bizarre hole in border policy provoked congressional outrage. “Is anyone in charge here?" an astonished Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, asked Border Patrol officials at a Capitol Hill hearing.
The agency quickly stepped up a program of “expedited removal" that put the immigrants on a fast track for deportation. While the removal was expedited it frequently still took several weeks, during which the 20,000 detention beds in the federal immigration system can fill up, forcing a return to the improbable policy of “catch and release.”
A balancing act
In the spring of 2006, the Senate passed legislation intending to impose order on the chaos of illegal immigration. It proposed to allow illegal immigrants a chance to seek citizenship, to establish legal channels for hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers to enter the country each year and to double the Border Patrol in an effort to contain illegal flows.
The bill’s principal congressional advocates were Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, who praised illegal immigrants as “people who work hard and want to be part of the American dream,’’ and Arizona Republican John McCain, who said it would end the horror that each year sees several hundred immigrants die in the desert furnaces of his home state.
After the legislation passed a key vote in the judiciary committee, Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum slapped the back of Kevin Appleby ’84, who directs the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The Catholic boys did it!" Sharry exclaimed, referring to the intense lobbying of Catholic clergy on behalf of immigrants and against a House bill that they condemned as an effort to make criminals of those who provided humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants in desperate straits.
Appleby had helped the bishops launch their Justice for Immigrants campaign that he said was based on church teaching.
“There are certain rights that people have as part of their human dignity, and one of them is the right to migrate,’’ said Appleby, who also said the bishops acknowledge that governments have the right to control the flow of immigrants into their country.
“But there is a balancing test there,” Appleby said, introducing a theme that received considerable attention at the 2004 Notre Dame immigration conference. “Nations with more economic and political power have a greater responsibility to try to accommodate them.
“In the situation of migration to the United States, the church would say that it’s a win-win situation because not only is the universal common good served in that migrants can come and work and support their families but also the national common good is served because immigration is a good thing and enriches the country.”
The story of immigrants’ success is part of our national mythology, our sense that the United States has an almost mystical power to provide opportunities and a way up—if not immediately, then across generations.
Senator McCain made it clear that he expects the same of the current wave of immigration. “The reason they don’t move up the ladder now is that they live in this shadow world" of illegal immigration, he said.
Others warn that globalization is threatening the upward mobility that is central to the American dream and which allowed the United States to be the first nation in the world to create a blue-collar middle class.
“The relatively stable unionized jobs in manufacturing that were common 50 years ago have been replaced either by high-technology development jobs or by very low-skilled service jobs,” UCLA’s William Clark warned in Immigrants and the American Dream.
Clark noted that the United States has lost millions of manufacturing jobs in recent decades. “At the same time, the U.S. economy has generated a vast service sector of low-skilled and relatively low-paying jobs, which have little if any security and even less chance of occupational advancement.”
Immigration scholars Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut took stock of the losses in their 1990 book Immigrant America.
“The structure of the American labor market looks less and less like a pyramid, where successive generations can move up gradually along multiple layers of blue-collar and white-collar occupations,” Portes and Rumbaut wrote. Instead, they said, it resembles an hourglass, with large groups at both ends of the wage spectrum and a narrowing band of middle-income manufacturing jobs in the center.
The darkening economic panorama and the apparent shrinking of the American dream cast a shadow over the optimism behind the Kennedy-McCain blueprint to welcome millions of low-skilled immigrants into the country.
This raises questions about the prospects for immigrants like Sergio and Becky Mendoza, from the Mexican state of Chiapas, who have worked double shifts at a McDonald’s in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, within earshot of the Capitol Beltway.
Two months after Bishop Wenski spoke at the Notre Dame conference, Becky was about to sit down with friends for a Christmas Eve dinner of chicken mole. Then the phone rang. The call came from the McDonald’s manager, who pleaded with Becky to work another shift. Her promise of double pay pulled Becky out of the house, with thoughts of sending some extra money back to her two children in Mexico.
She dreamed of bringing them to the United States but wondered how she and Sergio could balance work and child-care duties. Children left unsupervised by overworked parents are “a recipe for gangs,” said Professor Jorge Chapa of Indiana University.
Alienation of the young is an enormous problem for Hispanic immigrants, whose children are at the lowest end of the performance scale in the highly respected schools of Maryland’s Montgomery County, just outside of Washington. There Hispanic students have the highest dropout rate and the lowest rates for attendance and graduation.
Clearly, the American dream is in danger for many of the nation’s newest immigrants. Yet the Senate has shown an almost blithe indifference to the demographic consequences of their legislation, which proposes to solve the problem of illegal immigration by legalizing those who are here and providing legal channels for millions more.
The House of Representatives, taking a hard line, has insisted upon tough enforcement to take control of the border. That position prevailed with last fall’s passage in both houses of legislation to build 700 miles of border fence. But there was no agreement on proposals to require that workers present tamper-proof identity documents to employers who then would be required to verify their eligibility to work in the United States by checking the documents against a centralized data base. In this controversial area, many employers prefer the status quo, which provides them easy access to workers.
President Bush has found shelter in aphorisms. Praising the determination of illegal immigrants, he has declared: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” Citing the rise in low-wage jobs, he talked often of matching “willing worker with willing employer.”
“People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do, to be able to feed their families, and I think there’s a humane way to recognize that,” Bush said as he outlined his proposal a year ago. He wanted to provide work visas—temporary but renewable—for the millions of illegal immigrants who have found work in the United States. The president also wants to allow employers to bring in more workers from around the world when Americans cannot readily be found. On the sensitive topic of whether to provide the workers a path to citizenship, he remains ambiguous.
Many labor economists and immigration experts dismiss the notion that a shortage of low-wage workers exists, saying Bush’s plan actually would help sustain a glut of low-wage workers that is pushing down labor costs in an expanding array of U.S. industries.
The president’s plan “basically takes all the low-wage labor employers say they need and wraps it up for them with a big ribbon,” said Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
The White House hopes that a generous immigration policy will appeal to Hispanic voters, but many Hispanics share the anxiety of other middle-class Americans. That is why, in 2004, exit polls in Arizona showed 47 percent of the state’s Hispanics voted for a proposition aimed at stopping illegal immigration—even after a well-funded publicity campaign led by most of the state’s political and business establishment had branded it as racist.
Immigration has become a divisive issue even in Iowa, where the state’s Catholic Conference issued a statement urging a welcome for illegal immigrants: “The love of God does not stop at national boundaries,” the statement reads. “Immigrants crossing into the United States are in need of the love of neighbor that was commanded by Jesus.”
Kirk Martin, who coordinates local migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities, told the Des Moines Register in July that some Catholics resent the call for an unconditional welcome to strangers.
“We get angry calls,” Martin said. “There has been some backlash against immigrants.”
In Manassas, Virginia, Gerardo Jimenez, who rode the 1986 amnesty to a place in the middle class as head of a dry-walling crew, shares the anxiety. The ceaseless flow of hungry young men willing to work for half his wage threatens his hold on the American dream, said Jimenez, who hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco, home of tequila and mariachi music.
Said Jimenez, “Somebody has to bring some order to this situation.”
Jerry Kammer, a correspondent in the Copley News Service’s Washington bureau, received a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.