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World view at heart of immigration debate

The following column was published in Arkansas Catholic on June 20, 2009. It was written by Maricella Garcia, the former director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock.

In Southern Africa, humanity is defined through your relationships with others. The Zulu word, “Ubuntu,” speaks to the interconnectedness of all people. There are many different ways of explaining this concept, but essentially it means, “I am because you are.” Although our society idealizes the idea of the rugged individual who can strike out on their own and become successful, we must remember that we are all one family in Christ. To love God is to love one another.

And, failing to do so, especially during this time of worldwide crisis is dangerous, not only to those that we refuse to acknowledge have any connection to us, but more so, to ourselves, as we fail to take clearly to heart Jesus’ command to love one another. Turning your back to a child of God is turning your back on God’s love. You may not believe in this concept that the individual’s well-being is caught up in the well-being of others. You may easily say, “That doesn’t apply to me,” but you must not believe this. Our current global crisis shows our interconnectedness only too well.

The immigration debate in this country has lacked an understanding of this basic concept since the first immigration laws were established that excluded African-Americans, American Indians and other undesirables (including Catholics) from citizenship. We must not let exclusionary ideas color the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform today. Instead we must work together to push for real reform that is inclusive and fair. I am not suggesting that reform will be easy — only that it is the necessary, just and humane thing to do.

I could tell story after story about hardworking families that are suffering from our current laws, of how there is no line to get into, of how children are punished for their parent’s choices, etc. Instead, I’d like to focus on three simple reasons why we should all support comprehensive reform now.

Our current system is broken, unstable and unsustainable. In 1994, strict border enforcement was heralded as the answer to illegal immigration at a time when there were approximately 5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Since 1994 the government has spent approximately $35 billion on border enforcement and now there are more than 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Strict enforcement doesn’t work.

Changes to current immigration law would strengthen our ability to manage our immigration system. Under our current system, there are more than 12 million immigrants in the U.S. that the government does not have in their system. For the most part, these are good people that want to work hard, provide for their family and practice their faith.

However, the current system ensures that among the good people entering the country are also criminals that conduct their activities here. Reform would mean that instead of focusing our enforcement actions against people who have simply been working without authorization, we can focus our attention on keeping the criminal element out and removing them when found in the U.S. The vast majority of immigrants want to have status, they will register and the government will be able to identify them leaving enforcement agents free to focus on the truly dangerous immigrants who currently operate for the most part unchecked.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a part of our economic recovery. It is understandable to have economic anxiety during this time of our country’s struggle to recover our economic markets. However, choosing to keep immigrants in the shadows is not a solution. Instead, we should level the playing field so that immigrants aren’t exploited in a black market economy. If immigrants are allowed to apply for visas, they will. Immigrants already pay significant taxes, however, reform would mean an estimated increase of $66 billion to the economy through increased tax revenue.

There are many reasons why we should adopt comprehensive immigration reform, but the most important is that laws must be just and respect human dignity. Unfortunately, our current system fails to address any of these issues. Respect life means that we must look not only at birth and death, but the totality of life.

We need to restore the rule of law, but it must be first based on a foundation of human dignity. We must all embrace the “other” and realize it is our connections to one another that truly make us human. I am because you are. We are one bread, one body and God’s love encompasses us all.