A scholar of religion and a journalist consider immigration reform from a moral standpoint. This op-ed was first featured in the San Jose Mercury News on February 1, 2013.
If you believe some conservatives, the biggest threat to “family values” is same-sex marriage. Yet these same elected officials wash their hands of a U.S. immigration system that tears parents from children, exploits migrants, and leaves families in disarray.
President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators have outlined strong ideas for finally reforming this broken system, but it is vital not to lose sight of the moral and practical case for comprehensive reform, not just the economic or political case.
An estimated 16.5 million people in our country live in a family that includes at least one unauthorized immigrant. Listening to immigrant mothers separated from their children, you hear the pain and desperation of those who fled poverty or political turmoil for a better life.
The particular threats migrant women face receive scant attention. But rape and sexual trafficking have increased as women make up a growing share of undocumented immigrants. Women frequently work in gender-segregated, unregulated sectors of the economy where their exposure to exploitation increases. In fact, 80 percent of Mexican women working in California’s Central Valley have reported experiencing sexual harassment.
Do we finally have the moral vision and courage to do what’s right for immigrant families?
In recent comments, President Obama and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio were right to indicate that breaking up immigrant families—who in large part pay taxes, contribute to our economy, and cherish the American dream—is not the answer.
More than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States have lived here for more than 10 years. Undocumented youth are entitled by law to an elementary and high school education but face meager options thereafter in the only nation they have known as home. Excluding another generation of these young strivers—future engineers and poets alike—perpetuates a double society with second-class residents.
Political leaders who court religious voters and claim to defend family values while demonizing immigrants should know that the faith community is mobilized like never before to ensure immigration reform passes this year.
PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations, has launched a “Campaign for Citizenship” to pressure Congress to enact reform. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is sponsoring a postcard campaign urging Catholics to contact lawmakers. A prominent group of evangelicals, backed by the National Association of Evangelicals, has launched a formidable coalition to mobilize Christian conservatives.
To really honor family values that are espoused by so many in Congress, comprehensive legislation must include a clear path to earned citizenship for aspiring Americans, not a patchwork of measures that nibble at the margins.
Any proposals to put border enforcement before addressing citizenship will keep families in limbo at a time when more than 3 million families, whose family-based petitions have been approved, are still awaiting their visas. A spouse or child of a lawful U.S. resident must now wait five to 10 years before receiving his or her visa.
There also must be a solution to the longstanding mismatch of job demand and visa availability—and not just for in-demand high-tech workers. At present, the United States allocates the same number of green cards to neighboring Mexico as to Botswana and Nepal. This defies reality and increases the risk of exploitation of immigrant family members.
After a presidential election that solidified the growing electoral clout of Latino voters, the political winds are blowing in the right direction for a bipartisan consensus. Do we finally have the moral vision and courage to do what’s right for immigrant families?
Kristin E. Heyer is the Bernard J. Hanley professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration. John Gehring is the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life in Washington