April 11, 2006

The Tear Sheet: Welcoming the strangers

by Michael Lindenberger

Anyone who’s still nauseous over how religion hijacked the 2004 presidential election — including the anti-gay marriage sideshow — may have felt a new gurgle last week at the sight of clergy members helping lead a political protest in downtown Louisville.

But this time clergy was on the other side of the debate. Catholic priests and other men and women of the cloth mixed it up with about 400 others in front of the federal courthouse, shouting opposition to a harsh new immigration bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Isn’t it telling how some folks can invoke religion as a reason to extend a hand to the hard-pressed and the needy, while others read it as a commandment to fill the airwaves with messages of exclusion and condemnation?

It was compassion, not condemnation, that surfaced last week, as hundreds of protesters brought Louisvillians face to face with a reality many of us tend to ignore: We’re home to thousands of immigrants here, and many lead anonymous lives of sweat and toil and worry.

Across the United States, an estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants are here illegally. It’s a problem, to be sure, but the SAME leaders who’ve been swept into power, and kept there by the religious right, envision a solution that is difficult to reconcile with the Gospel.

A bill passed by the House — with support from every member of the Kentucky and Southern Indiana contingents — would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally. The bill would allow illegal immigrants already here to apply for a temporary guest worker program — if they first return to their country of origin — but for most would not offer a path to citizenship or residency. (For a copy of the bill, search for H.B. 4437 at thomas.loc.gov.)

It’s a no-carrot approach that would, overnight, create a vast population of felons, and mock the Statute of Liberty. You know, bring us your tired, your hungry, your poor — and we’ll toss ’em in jail. If you are white and poor and hungry, come on in, but if you’re brown and poor and hungry, go to hell.

No one says reforming this nation’s immigration laws will be simple. It will not.

The last time Congress acted, Ronald Reagan was President and Louisville was represented in Congress by the maverick Democrat whose name is on the federal building where last week’s local protest took place.

Romano “Ron” Mazzoli helped engineer the 1986 immigration reforms that everyone now seems to agree have broken down. That law granted immediate amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants and, critics say, spurred millions more to risk crossing the border in hopes of more lenient treatment.

In an interview, Mazzoli said the bill he crafted with then-Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming hasn’t failed, but has simply not been enforced.

“When Al and I put together this bill, we said at the time it was a three-legged stool, and if any of one of the legs failed, you wouldn’t have a bill,” Mazzoli said. “One of the legs was the a program for hiring temporary workers, one leg was the legalization program which we established, and the other one was employer sanctions. Those sanctions have never been enforced.

Each succeeding administration has either wished them to fail or they were ambivalent about their success.”

Mazzoli said that without sanctions, it’s too easy for employers to decide not to check an applicant’s immigration status, or to accept suspicious documentation.

So, this time around, the fight has moved outside the halls of power, and into the streets of cities across the United States, where tens of thousands, or more, have rallied to stop the House bill.

A more humane — but still flawed — Senate compromise emerged late last week, only to die before senators went home for the Easter break.

That bill would have set up an 11-year process whereby millions of immigrants already here would have been set on the path toward possible citizenship. It was tough but compassionate — an approach you might expect W. conservatives to embrace.

It is also, at least in the view of the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, one of the protesters outside the Romano L. Mazzoli Federal Building last week, more Christ-like.

“We see ourselves as a voice for voiceless people,” said Delahanty, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, a group led by the state’s four bishops. “The immigration debate is one that the Catholic Church is a big part of, because of the Gospel’s mandate to welcome the stranger.”

Surprise! It turns out that the Catholic Church, even as it is sending Vatican emissaries to weed out undesirables from seminaries across the country, is also about lifting people up and fighting for basic human rights. Who would have thought?

If it’s been a while since you’ve bent the binding on your Bible, you might have forgotten that the Gospel according to St. Matthew commands believers to be kind to the poor, to remember “the least of these” and to, yes, “welcome the stranger.”

For believers, it’s something to think about in church on Sundays, although Delahanty suggested many forget that.

“People are too selective” about what it means to be a Christian voter, he said. “When I have given homilies on the social justice teachings of the church, a lot of people sitting in the pews get angry.”

Many of the protesters last week carried signs that served as succinct, secular counterpoints to the Gospel.

“We are hard workers, not criminals,” one read. Another said: “Economically, we all depend on each other. Be fair.”

That’s the kind of welcome mat that Guillermo Luiz would like to see. The 54-year-old native Mexican is a warehouseman who now lives in Fern Creek.

Providing workers like him a chance to gain legal status would go a long way toward making them less vulnerable to exploitation, said union leader Larry Hujo III of the Indiana Kentucky/Regional Council of Carpenters.

“Employers know their status, and they hire them anyway. Without legal status, they can openly exploit immigrants,” he said. “It’s a form of slavery, and they just exploit them to death.”

He’s right. The immigration crisis is a human crisis, not just a political or economic crisis. Other people who are out to make a buck on their back-breaking labor are exploiting human beings. Fixing that has to be part of the solution, too — something the House version completely ignores.

One way to start is to hold such employers accountable, while helping to make it easier for them to find Americans to fill their jobs. Fortunately, that’s the easy part. Raising the minimum wage would solve that problem immediately.

The truth is that immigrants aren’t, as you often hear, doing jobs Americans won’t do. They are simply working for wages that many Americans won’t accept.

Can you blame them? At $10,000 a year, the minimum wage is a joke. It should be a crime itself.

Companies that pay honest wages won’t have to resort to hiring illegals. Plenty of legal applicants will be at their doors.

Focusing on the minimum wage and exploitation of workers doesn’t mean Congress can’t also secure our borders. Let’s hope that when the Senate returns this month, it looks at the problem in its human context, and does both.

Contact the writer at
michael.lindenberger@gmail.com