Scapegoating Immigrants for Economic Ills

by Joseph Fahy, C.P.
Reprinted from "The Georgia Bulletin" of the Atlanta Catholic Archdiocese

On January 6, 1996, President Clinton signed legislation to increase the budget by 24% for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, primarily for border enforcement and dentention of illegal immigrants.

In his State of the Union message, he also promised to address anew "the problem of illegal immigration." To implement this promise, he signed an executive order February 13th excluding companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants from doing business with the federal government.

Common sense, justice and compassion are requred for a much-needed reform of immigration practice and law. Such reform includes the legitimate and reasonable control over our borders, and a realistic understanding of the limits of U.S. resources to continue absorbing unrestricted immigration.

However, during the current debates about this incendiary issue of immigration, discussions often become shrill, generating hysteria and backlash rather than insight and reasonable dialogue. Frequently there is silence or only scant attention given to the powerful pressures prompting thousands to take the drastic step of leaving their homelands in search of a new life.

Public Must Be Aware

Pope John Paul II, in his July 25, 1995 message concerning worldwide immigration, stated: "The situation of emigrants in their countries of origin is decreasingly considered, while that of the problems created by the immigrants are increasingly discussed...It is very important that public opinion be properly informed about the true situation in the migrants' country of origin, about the tragedies involving them and the possible risks of returning."

Take one example -- Mexico. The purchasing power of 56% of all Mexican households is less than $5,000. Outside the broad boulevards and elegant homes of Mexico City and Monterey, in many areas surrounding the 2,000 maquiladoras or assembly plants heavily concentrated along the 1,945-mile U.S. border, hundreds of thousands of people live in shacks of discarded materials, without running water and plumbing and with scarce electricity. Hourly wages at the maquiladoras, where jobs are highly attractive for most Mexicans, may be as low as 35 cents an hour.

The profound economic crisis, which caused wages to plummet 30% and the inflation rate to soar to 52% last year, triggered the emigration of numerous non-traditional migrants. 80% of Mexico's two millian Indians live in dire poverty.

Fallacies of the Immigrant Myth

We must discern the fallacies relating to the "myth of unilateral benefits," i.e., that immigration exclusively benefits immigrants. With a declining U.S. birth rate decreasing the number of U.S.-born workforce, immigrants arrive at the peak of work performance, in their 20s and 30s, usually without elderly dependents and with a strong work ethic.

Illegal immigrants pay considerably more in consumer purchases and taxes. Immigrants with lower wages have been indispensable in the survival of numerous small and medium-sized businesses as well as in generating new ones.

We cannot afford to scapegoat immigrants for our own exonomic doldrums, rather than creatively grapple with the complex issues of trade imbalances, flight of businesses, outmoded technologies, crime and the paralyzing deficit, and other ills which have little relation to immigration.

Xenophobic Behavior

The Pope movingly stresses that "it is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations.

While we rightly strive to reform our immigration practice and law, immigrants must not be denied basic health care, social services and educational opportunities. Family reunification must continue to be a priority.

Those is desperate exonomic need or danger to life because of political opporession must be afforded impartial consideration by knowledgeable officials, and special federal aid programs must be provided for those areas with high immigrant populations.

Dignity - Inalienable Rights

Pope John Paul II points out that the immigrants' possible "irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his or her dignity, since he or she is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated or be ignored. Whatever their legal status with regard to state law, [the community's duty is] to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence."

Each national group of immigrants enriches our common American heritage, already enhanced by the splendid variety of the multiple gifts of past immigrations of which our own ancestors were a part.

In this context, it is most instructive to recall how the merciful Yahweh liverated the exploited Hebrews from cruel servitude, delivering them from the situation of brutal oppression, by graciously leading them to a new land of freedom (Dt 26:5-10).

"I was a Stranger...."

The immigrant, the Pope assures us, "particularly if he or she is weak, defenseless, driven to the margins of society, is a sacrament of Christ's presence...'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' (Mt 25:35). Today, the illegal migrant comes before us like that stranger in whom Jesus asks us to be recognized."

The Pope points out clearly and strongly several important implications for the Church where immigrants settle, as in our Archdiocese of Atlanta:

"There are often Catholic Christians among the illegal migrants who, in the name of the same faith, often seek pastors of souls and places where they can pray, listen to God's word and celebrate the Lord's mysteries.

"Dioceses have the duty to meet these needs. In the Church, no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere...The Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters. It is the task of the various dioceses to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community.

Fr. Joseph Fahy, C.P. works with the Hispanic Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

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