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What Happened to Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

Last September, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program begun by President Barack Obama in 2012, which prevented individuals who had illegally entered the United States as children from being deported (although not providing them with legal status) and allowed them to apply for work permits. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators put forward a deal that would provide DACA recipients with legal status and eventually a path to citizenship, while also increasing funding for border security and significantly modifying the diversity lottery visa system. The plan met opposition from the White House, but nevertheless represents significant progress toward resolving the status of the 690,000 DACA recipients.

The negotiations over DACA also reveal a troubling trend, however: an increasingly exclusive focus on undocumented immigrants, particularly on what to do with those already present in the U.S. and how to prevent more from entering the country, to the neglect of focusing on the legal paths available to those seeking to immigrate to the U.S. The two ought to be considered together, since one of the primary divers of illegal immigration is the lack of available visa programs for many who seek to immigrate to the U.S., and the long wait times experienced by many who are eligible for those programs.

Such a comprehensive approach to immigration has been absent from recent discussions. This has opened the door to arguments, once marginal in the immigration debate, in favor of restricting legal immigration to the U.S., particularly visas issued through the family reunification program. For example, one of the Trump White House’s objections to the senators’ deal is that the White House prefers a deal that restricts family reunification visas issued to family members of future immigrants. The RAISE Act, put forward by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, proposes eliminating visas for siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens.

There has also been increasing use of the term “chain migration” to refer to family reunification visas. Family reunification visas permit U.S. citizens, and in some cases legal residents, to sponsor their family members for visas. Critics of this policy refer to it as “chain migration” to suggest that for every immigrant who enters the country, potentially several others will arrive in tow. The reality, however, is that the number of family reunification visas is limited by a quota each year, and the relatives of immigrants have to go through the same process as anyone else, often taking several years. A majority of Americans support increasing immigration levels or keeping immigration at present levels, but anti-immigrant advocates use the rhetoric of “chain migration” to push for measures that would drastically decrease legal immigration.

Previous attempts at immigration reform took a comprehensive approach, recognizing that addressing the problem of illegal immigration required making it easier for people to immigrate to the United States legally. For example, both the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (which was passed by the Senate but not the House) and the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill, which also passed the Senate, but not the House) proposed expanding the number of temporary low-skill worker visas.

The fate of the “Gang of Eight” bill may help explain why this comprehensive approach to immigration is missing from current discussions. Although the bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, it was rejected by the Republican Party’s base supporters, who saw the bill as an “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants because it provided them with an eventual path to citizenship. This argument was successfully used as a line of attack against Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who was one of the sponsors of the bill, during the 2016 primaries. As a result, a comprehensive approach to immigration reform has since been a non-starter for most Republican lawmakers. Donald Trump’s focus on illegal immigration and association of immigrants with criminality has also shifted the focus of the immigration debate.

In addition, since the Great Recession in 2007-08, the net flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico has reversed, with more leaving the U.S. each year than entering. This shift has been caused by an improved economy in Mexico and slow growth in the Mexican labor supply. It has also been affected by shifts in enforcement in the U.S. This change in the net flow of undocumented migrants has arguably taken away some of the pressure for providing more legal avenues for immigrants.

Nevertheless, the United States Catholic bishops’ teachings on immigration suggest that a comprehensive approach remains necessary. Catholic teaching makes clear that immigration cannot be treated solely as a law enforcement issue, but rather must be addressed in a way that considers the dignity of each person and the common good. In the pastoral letter Strangers No Longer: Together On the Journey of Hope, co-written with the bishops of Mexico, they write that the increasing economic, social, and cultural integration that exists between the United States and Mexico (and one might add the nations of Central America, as well) necessitates reforms in the immigration system that facilitate the lawful movement of people between nations (#63).

The bishops also emphasize Catholic teaching’s focus on the family as the basic cell of society. They propose a number of reforms of the immigration system that would correct policies that harm families. For example, they explain that per-country quotas on family reunification visas lead to lengthy wait times for family reunification visas, often lasting for years. For legal permanent residents, in particular, this can mean waiting many years to be reunited with a spouse or children. They propose reforming these quotas to better account for the demand for visas coming from Mexico and Central America (##64-66).

Catholics ought to be a voice for this comprehensive approach to immigration in today’s debate on the issue. In the changed political environment, it is unlikely that lawmakers would agree to expanding the paths to legal status through a guest worker program or increased family reunification quotas, for example. But Catholics must be ready to combat the rhetoric of “chain migration” and to explain the problems with restricting family reunification visas. Above all, they must show that immigration policy has to be rooted in the dignity of persons and the common good.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

2 thoughts on “What Happened to Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

  1. Matthew 22:21 Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Romans 13:1 “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”

  2. There will never be a real comprehensive immigration bill unless it addresses the foreign policies that increase the number of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. Without such an overall approach, we are acting like the proverbial bull in a china shop when forming immigration policies.

    But something else should be said in the light of Trump’s immigration gaffe and his previously stated approach. The Republican approach to immigration is to businessfy it. That is the value of each immigrant, according to the Trump/Republican approach, is to be solely based on the value that the market assigns to them. Such an approach denies the intrinsic value of each person. And if that is the approach our government will take with immigrants, it will eventually, if not already, be the approach that it will take with us, its own citizens.

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