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Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner: America must meet this human rights test

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opinion Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
(218) 333-9819 customer support
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Our nation’s immigration system is broken. It is inconsistent, ineffective and does not serve the common good. On this point, people across the political spectrum are in agreement.

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The question is, what are we going to do about it, especially as thousands of children are coming across the border into the United States due to the stark violence in their countries of origin?

As the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Crookston, I encourage all Catholics and citizens of good will to continue to urge their congresspersons to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We must work to alleviate what is becoming a major humanitarian crisis, meet this important human rights test and bring the more than 11 million aspiring citizens out of the shadows of our society by providing a roadmap to citizenship. This important public matter cannot wait.

The Catholic Church is an immigrant church, and more than one-third of Catholics in the United States are of Hispanic origin. We see the effects of a broken immigration system every day in our parishes, schools, hospitals and charitable agencies. Families are divided, laborers are exploited and people are unable to access the basic necessities of life simply because they are not U.S. citizens. They have come here seeking a better life, attempting to escape poverty and rampant violence, and to reunite with their families. Their situation in many cases is desperate, and they live in fear that they will be separated from their families and deported.

The church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image. In a recent statement for World Refugee Day, Pope Francis reminded us that “Jesus was a refugee,” and called upon Catholics and others to “alleviate their suffering in a concrete way.” Experience shows us that the suffering of our immigrant brothers and sisters is very real.

Since 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of unaccompanied migrating children arriving in the country, predominantly at the U.S./Mexico border. Whereas the number of children apprehended averaged 6,800 between 2004 and 2011, the total jumped to more than 13,000 children in 2012 and more than 24,000 children in 2013. The federal government is estimating that more than 90,000 unaccompanied minors could enter the United States during 2014.

Another harrowing statistic is that more than 6,000 people have died trying to cross the desert and make it into the United States since 1998. We cannot forget that these are human beings, not simply statistics. They remind us of the urgent need to provide an attainable roadmap to citizenship for our many aspiring citizens, and the urgent need to help the most vulnerable among us.

Bringing immigrants out of the shadows will provide us a more stable workforce, increase our security and ensure that migrants do not become exploited or die in the desert. Yet we continue to resist a public policy solution while we accept the labor and taxes of undocumented people. It is a particularly cruel form of doublethink to accept the work of our immigrant brothers and sisters without affording them the basic protections of our laws.

Many, understandably, ask why these millions of unauthorized immigrants did not seek to come to the United States lawfully and “wait in line” like everyone else. Some argue that if their ancestors could do it, so should the unauthorized immigrants in our country today.

Such a view, however, relies on a misunderstanding of history and the facts of immigration policy. For example, immigration by those arriving from non-Asian countries was not significantly restricted until the 1920s, by which time many of our immigrant ancestors had already arrived.

For the large majority of aspiring citizens today, no “line” to enter the country legally exists. Under the current immigration legal framework, lawful immigration to the United States is restricted to only a few narrow categories of persons.

Yet, according to two well-regarded opinion surveys of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, the large majority of undocumented people in the country today would have preferred to enter lawfully, if they could have done so. In fact, some 98 percent of those surveyed indicated that they would prefer to live and work lawfully, rather than in an unauthorized status.

Our broken, unjust system has created a vicious cycle in which we lure workers into our country to exploit their labor, and then treat them as second class persons. To shame them as “lawbreakers” and oppose “rewarding” them with an opportunity to earn citizenship misses the point. Undocumented immigrants are victims of a broken system, and unjust laws that exploit human beings should be fixed.

If long-term solutions to the current immigration problem are to be found, we must all honestly examine the root causes of our broken system, and the very human reasons that people risk everything to find safety, freedom, and opportunity. We pray for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our legislators, so that they may have the wisdom to see how the understandable causes of migration should be addressed. It is a moral issue that can no longer wait.

The Most Reverend Michael J. Hoeppner is the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Crookston.

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