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Why Reform?: What the Church teaches on the dignity of migrants

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Sara and Nancy Hernandez in their family home in Sylmar. (photo/Victor Alemán)

Every day, Elcias Hernandez has the same routine: he and his wife take their children to school on the weekdays, go to work and return home as a family. They enjoy the simple joys of life together: the family goes to church together, visits swimming pools, the rivers and the mountains to see the snow.

For Hernandez, every day is a gift from God.

“My greatest joy is to wake up and see my children with me, safe and sound, and growing up in a safe place,” he said.

Many Americans this Father’s Day will take these family joys for granted in a way that Hernandez never will. First of all, Hernandez, who has lived in the U.S. for nine years and works as a handyman, is Guatemalan. Devout in his faith, he told Angeles News that God gives him the peace he needs to live with the thought that the United States government may one day arrest and deport him for his decision to cross into the U.S. without authorization. At the time, Hernandez had little alternative if he was going to protect and provide for his family.

Hernandez left Guatemala in his mid-20s, having been assaulted several times while making deliveries to restaurants. That made it clear he had to get out now or get killed later. Hernandez chose the former, traveling 12 days by bus through Mexico and then crossing the desert on foot, comforted by his faith that God would bring him to safety.

For the next five years, Hernandez worked every day to save up money in the hope that he could someday go back to Guatemala, find a house in a safe neighborhood, open up a new business and reunite with his family. That was Hernandez’s dream, until reality intruded. Violence unchecked by a weak state, and fueled by drug cartels and gangs, had achieved such levels — 100 murders a week in 2012 — that his family had to leave without delay.  

The $15,000 he had set aside for a house and business, instead paid for a coyote to get his wife and children out of Guatemala to the U.S. in 2013. They were arrested by the Border Patrol in Texas, where they registered as political refugees, and took a bus to California, where they were finally reunited.

Hernandez is one of more than 11 million residents of the U.S. who live and work in their communities without legal authorization. According to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of all unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years and 86 percent have lived in the U.S. for more than five.

The U.S. bishops have repeatedly called upon Congress and the White House — to no avail — to enact just and humane reforms of the immigration system, with Catholic social teaching on the dignity of the human person as its blueprint. The system’s brokenness is now manifesting itself in the lives of individuals like Hernandez, as well as their families and communities. President Donald Trump signaled in January that his administration will do what previous administrations would not: enforce immigration law on the books to the fullest extent.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has revealed that it made 41,000 administration arrests — the process that begins deportation — within President Trump’s first 100 days, marking a 38 percent increase over last year’s figures within the same time frame. ICE claimed that almost 75 percent of those apprehended had criminal convictions, only specifying later that only close to 2,700 arrests involved immigrants convicted of violent crimes, such as homicide, rape, kidnapping and assault.

But ICE trumpeted the news that it had also made 10,800 arrests of noncriminal unauthorized immigrants — a 150 percent increase over 2016’s total of 4,200 noncriminal arrests. It said this proved the immigration enforcement agency “will no longer exempt any class of individuals from removal proceedings if they are found to be in the country illegally.” 

Why the nation needs reform

The acceleration of ICE arrests — now that the Trump administration has reversed President Barack Obama’s 2014 policy of prioritizing violent criminals for deportation — has created a climate of fear and anxiety among immigrant populations across the U.S.

Bishops from coast to coast, from Archbishop José Gomez in Los Angeles to Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, have criticized ICE’s forced removal of otherwise law-abiding men, women and children, as violations of their human dignity, the integrity of the family, the cohesion of society and ultimately as destructive to the main purpose of law: the care of the common good.

In Los Angeles, the Church is sending a message of solidarity with immigrants. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is hosting a June 18 Mass for All Immigrants. More than 160 parishes are working in tandem with the archdiocese to fight rumor and panic by conducting educational sessions for immigrant communities and providing them with truth and facts regarding their rights under the law, including what they can do to obtain legal status and how to put their affairs in order now for their family’s sake in case they are removed for deportation.

“We’re actually doing what we can to reach out to as many communities as we can,” Andrew Rivas, director of government relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told Angelus News.

Unauthorized immigrants, he said, should not fear going to religious services or to school. ICE has assured the archdiocese its agents are following existing guidelines not to go near those places.

ICE’s capacity to carry out arrests and enforce deportation orders varies according to its manpower in different parts of the country. But in the Los Angeles area, Rivas said, ICE has just 200 agents to carry out more than 40,000 deportation orders, and ICE confirmed they are only going after those persons. They do not have the manpower to conduct roadblocks and sweeps at this time.

California has two bills going through the legislature: SB 6, which would create a fund to provide unauthorized immigrants with legal counsel, and SB 54, which would bar local law enforcement from sharing immigration status with federal officials. Both pieces have passed the state Senate and are supported by the archdiocese, although SB 54 has hit a snag in the Assembly over the question of whether there should be exceptions to banning local law enforcement from revealing to ICE an unauthorized immigrant’s criminal status.

But Rivas said at the end of the day what the Church wants is comprehensive immigration reform. The six principles of such a reform based in the Church’s teaching, enunciated by the U.S. bishops, involve granting permanent legal residency (with an eventual path to citizenship); a future worker program that would relieve illegal immigration, while guaranteeing immigrants and existing U.S. workers’ rights to just wages and workplace conditions; a family-based system that increases available visas to family members and reduces wait times; the restoration of due process rights eliminated by the 1996 immigration law; addressing the root causes of immigration, such as underdevelopment and poverty, so people have a right to migrate from their home countries; and humane, proportional enforcement policies that target real threats to public safety, such as “drug and human traffickers, smugglers and would-be terrorists.”

Mothers and violent criminals get same priority

Right now, unauthorized immigrants such as Maria [real name withheld by request] are getting the same enforcement priority as violent criminals. Maria told Angelus News that there is a lot of anxiety in the community, although the parish-based meetings have helped give her and others confidence to go about their lives, instead of becoming paralyzed by the fear of deportation.

Maria told Angelus News she was five months pregnant when she fled Mexico. She left so that her daughter in the womb, and all her future children, could receive a Catholic education, find a good job and provide for families of their own — things she couldn’t foresee in Mexico. She wanted her daughter to grow up a woman who could walk outdoors at night without fear of suffering violence.

“It was a dream,” said Maria. “We got here with a backpack full of hope.”

The risks to unauthorized immigrants from deportation are not slight. Maria’s Mexico is convulsed with a horrific drug war between the government and powerful cartels that has left a high body count. The risks from deportation are far higher for migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — gang-infested nations with some of the highest murder rates in the world. The Guardian, a United Kingdom-based journal, reported in 2014 that it found 83 deportees had been killed shortly after their return to Honduras.    

But the deportation of unauthorized immigrants who have established themselves permanently in the community, as opposed to the removal of violent criminals, undermines the Church’s teaching on human solidarity and communion, according to Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University. Father Deck pointed out these immigrants have in some way been invited to build lives in the U.S., but they — not the businesses or population at large that benefit from their labor — end up punished by deportation for their lack of legal status.

“These are not ‘disposable people,’” Father Deck said, referencing Pope Francis’ condemnation of a throwaway culture where people are treated as “waste” when they are no longer considered useful.

The right of human beings to migrate and the rights of states to regulate their borders for the sake of the common good are rights in tension with each other. The positive law, he indicated, cannot be just if it opposes the obligations of the natural or divine law. A nation that left migrants and refugees literally dying on its border, he said, would rightly be seen as “inhumane and immoral.”

Vatican II and St. John Paul II

The Second Vatican Council’s landmark decree “Gaudium et Spes” stressed “reverence for man” and said in modern times a “special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path.”

This Council also laid down a condemnation of violations of human life, integrity and dignity, stating that “deportation” was among those “infamies” that “are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” and “poison human society. … They do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.”

St. John Paul II in two encyclicals repeated this condemnation verbatim and strengthened this teaching, which labeled “deportation” and other offenses “instrinsic evils” in the 1993 “Veritatis Splendor,” and then again condemning them as “new threats to human life” in the 1995 “Evangelium Vitae,” stating he was “certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience.”

Jesuit Father Peter Neeley, assistant director of education for the Kino Border Initiative on the U.S.-Mexico border, told Angelus News he has seen the toll deportation and the immigration system taking in both countries.

The people who have recently risked their lives to come to the U.S. and were quickly removed, he said, overall have faith God will see them through this disappointment. But the deported immigrant who only speaks English and called the U.S. his home because his parents brought him here as a 6-month-old baby is struggling spiritually and psychologically.

But Father Neeley sees that also on the U.S. side of the border, where the Department of Homeland Security and for-profit prison companies are dominating local economies. Many see migrants not as their fellow human beings, but in terms of how they can fill beds in detention centers, reimbursed at taxpayer expense. 

This system, Father Neeley pointed out, illustrates why the Church is right to call immigration a “pro-life issue” because the same mechanisms are behind abortion: human beings are being deliberately used and disposed for profit, attitudes are hardening against the dignity of these human beings and the integrity of the law is under pressure. Father Neeley said the Jesuits are trying to get more immigration attorneys active in the area because they have reports that many first-time migrants are getting charged and then convicted with illegal re-entry — a felony that places them into private prison.  

Even though the system is broken, Father Neeley said there is a need for well-formed Catholics who act with integrity to be on the enforcement side of immigration, who will treat migrants with respect and reverence their humanity, despite the brokenness of the system.

Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, told Angelus News that her office is concerned over the increase of private for-profit prisons and its impact on the immigration detention system.

They are concerned that 80 percent of migrants have no access to legal representation, and that detention is separating families and putting tortured asylum seekers in the same place as hardened criminals. It would be cheaper, according to Feasley’s office, to release migrants who pose no threat to public safety to known family members. 

Catholic principles

Moises Barraza, a Catholic Chicago-based immigration attorney, told Angelus News that the local Church has a vital role to play in educating immigrants regarding the law. Many immigrants come from countries where the legal system is corrupt and so they do not think to consult attorneys. But they trust the advice of the Church, he said, which can refer them to local legal representatives specializing in immigration law who know the law, how immigration courts work and how judges think.

But people should neither panic nor procrastinate about building a document trail establishing a history of their residency and starting the legalization process. Barraza said a competent immigration attorney can help unauthorized immigrants find out what benefits they have under the law and devise a deportation defense strategy. Immigration law, as a subset of civil law, is very “fact-specific,” and does not have the same due process rights and expectations as criminal law. Often the difference between deportation and staying in the country, he said, is having legal counsel.

“If they have a deportation order, they should seek an attorney immediately,” he said.

Seeking the advice of an immigration attorney helped Tony (real name withheld by request), a Catholic from San Salvador, apply for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the California Dream Act, giving him legal status and opening doors that allowed him to become a Casa Loma College nursing student.

Renewing all the legal documents costs about $1,000 every two years, but is worth it to Tony, who learned English fluently in six months after arriving in California. He obtained high marks throughout high school, which gave him his full scholarship through college. He is a young adult leader in his parish.

It is a freedom and a life his friends in El Salvador do not have. Many of his friends had to join gangs to survive. His father fled gang violence and extortion, and worked so that Tony, then 9 years of age, and his mother could live in safety.

A year later, Tony and his mother finally reunited with his father in California after a harrowing journey and detention in Texas.

“Being with my dad again — that was the best thing in the world.”

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