Last week the U.S. Catholic bishops urged President Obama to act faster on his promises of federal immigration reform. In the meantime, they want Catholics to understand how the current patchwork of local laws is affecting 12 million people living and working in the country.
“Our position is that the system's broken,” said Kevin Appleby, Director of Migration and Refugee Policy at the U.S. bishops' conference. “The law needs to be changed.”
“We think that a lot of these people need to be brought out of the shadows. They've been working and contributing to society, despite the fact that they're out of legal status.”
The bishops, Appleby said, understand the importance of the rule of law – but they also see a fundamental injustice in the current state of affairs.
Almost all Americans, he explained, benefit from illegal immigrants' labor. But some citizens push for these same immigrants to be deported, and many others simply ignore the problem.
“We use their work, but we don't give them any protection of the law,” said Appleby. “If they're going to be working and contributing to the country, we have to give them that protection – we can't have it both ways.”
In recent years, the federal government has shifted much of its traditional responsibility for enforcing immigration law onto the states. Consequently, many states have begun to pass or consider measures targeting illegal immigrants, similar to those now being challenged in Arizona and Utah.
The states have also relied upon two local enforcement programs Appleby says are fraught with problems despite their good intentions – the Congressionally-authorized 287(g) program, and the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities initiative.
The first program authorizes local police to enforce federal immigration laws, while the second aims to prioritize the deportation of felons.
“We certainly agree with the goal of getting seriously criminal aliens out of the country, and the 'Secure Communities' program has that stated goal,” said Appleby.
The problem, he explained, is that “a lot of the people getting caught up in it haven't committed any offenses at all, other than being out of status.”
“Although the purported reason for this program is to deport criminal aliens, at least a third of the deportees have never committed a crime whatsoever,” he pointed out. If Secure Communities “worked properly,” he said the bishops “would have no problem with it. It's just not working properly.”
Secure Communities' failure to focus on the “worst of the worst” offenders is not the only problem. It's also made immigrant communities reluctant to cooperate with police at all, making many communities significantly less safe.
And, Appleby noted, it's diverted local police departments' attention away from their ordinary responsibilities, by saddling them with the task of enforcing federal immigration law.
“On the surface,” he said, the Secure Communities program “looks very reasonable. But when it's applied in local communities, there are some ill effects that really need to be scrutinized.”
But these programs, and state laws with similar or greater unintended effects, will most likely continue in the absence of comprehensive, nationwide immigration reform.
Appleby thinks the discussion about immigration reform should be refocused – from a gridlocked debate pitting humanitarian concerns against the rule of law, to a discussion about what is truly in the best interest of the United States.
“Those who are against immigration would make the argument that it's in their best interest that all these people go away,” Appleby acknowledged.
But he explained that the bishops consider this position shortsighted and impractical, as well as unfair.
“Immigrants, by and large, benefit our country. We need these immigrants, because they do a lot of things for our country that we need. But our laws aren't fit to make them legal.”
“Immigration reform may, in fact, be helpful over the long run for our economic future,” Appleby noted. He pointed out that it could help the U.S. government's own financial situation, by bringing underground sectors of the economy into the open where they can be taxed.
“Solving this problem is important to the common good of everyone,” he said.
Politicians, however, have plenty of incentive to accept the status quo.
“From Washington's perspective, it's working to have a hidden underclass doing these jobs,” Appleby observed. “It keeps the economy going, but we don't have to offer them the protection of the law. That's wrong.”