As a Catholic priest and president of the national conference representing leaders of all the Catholic men's religious institutes across the country, I have come to know the reality of immigrants first hand. One-thousand and one-hundred deportations a day break up families and induce fear in communities. Recently, one 7-year-old saw her mother's electronic ankle bracelet, heard about her deportation process, and asked "why would the country I grew up in do this to my mom?" Several years ago I knew a mother of two girls, ages 12 and 14, deported back to Ghana. She entered the country as a student 17 years earlier and remained in the United States where her daughters were born. After their mother was expelled from the country these young girls, U.S. citizens, became wards of the state.
Some leaders in the House of Representatives are still under the illusion that fixing our broken immigration system requires us to simply get "tougher." The all too common assumption is that our present laws are basically just, but our immigration system is broken because we don't enforce our laws. Thus, border enforcement is the buzzword. Opponents denounce a comprehensive approach to reform as "amnesty." Activists against comprehensive reform and their backers in the House claim that higher fences and more deportations are the answer. This enforcement-only argument is shaped by fear and too often a willful ignorance of the facts. It ignores the reality of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States, most of whom pay taxes, contribute to our society and will make America even stronger if they are brought out of the shadows and integrated into the mainstream through an earned pathway to citizenship.
On many occasions during the history of our country immigrants have been stigmatized as a problem. Yet history proves the opposite: immigrants have made us better Americans time and time again. Further, last year the Obama administration spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement -- significantly more than its spending on all other major federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report from the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. The United States currently deports 400,000 people a year who have not gone through the excessive 10- to 20-year process of applying for legal status as immigrants.
The border security mantra heard so frequently on Capitol Hill and from some key media outlets puts "tough" sheriff rhetoric before practical and compassionate solutions. It also ignores how U.S. policies contribute to migration. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law in 1993, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. increased from 3.9 million to 12 million today. During this same time period, 30,000 small and medium-size businesses closed their doors in Mexico. Six-thousand migrants died crossing the U.S. border. Sensible economic and trade policies that contribute to human flourishing and shared prosperity across national borders rather than simplistic calls for "border security" would help rescue our current polarized debate from cheap slogans. Our nation's best values are dishonored by an immigration system that separates parents from their children. I urge all members of Congress, especially Catholics like Speaker John Boehner, to remember that immigration reform is fundamentally about real people and human dignity.
During a recent speaking engagement in Nashville, I noticed as I often do throughout my travels that most of the construction workers and restaurant staff in hotels were immigrants. Immigrants have always provided a dynamism and a commitment to faith and family that strengthens our nation. Nashville is a thriving city in large part because of the hard work and vitality of new immigrants. The city is also the headquarters of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest private prison system. In just the last two years, CCA and the GEO Group have spent at least $4,350,000 on lobbying the federal government, primarily to increase and win immigration-related detention contracts, and thus, inevitably influence immigration reform legislation to focus on border surges and detention. CCA's funding of particular congressional members with clear voting records and public statements on immigration reform also functions to influence immigration legislation in this border enforcement direction. CCA claims to be a "socially responsible organization" that believes in "protecting human life and dignity," according to its web site.
If CCA and members of Congress who undermine or reject comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship truly want to respect human dignity, they should consider their role in breaking up families. Pulling daughters and sons from the arms of their mothers and fathers is not an American value. As a nation we are at our best when we exhibit the virtues of humility, compassion, and hospitality rather than slip into the vices of arrogance and possessiveness. As an American, Christian, and President of CMSM, I pray and urge our communities and our politicians to enact comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a pathway to citizenship.
Author note: This post has been updated to further expatiate and clarify the nature of CCA's candidate funding and lobbying efforts with regards to immigration reform legislation.