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The most recent bipartisan attempt at reform has foundered under a strong and well-organized grassroots campaign that succeeded in stigmatizing the bill as an "amnesty" for the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be residing in this country.
The legislation's opponents also included some of the strongest supporters of immigration reform who felt it did not go far enough, and even business proponents of reform wavered in their support when they felt the proposal would impose too much of a burden on employers.
If the legislation is not salvaged, the country may have lost its best chance to fix a broken system before the 2008 election.
Current immigration law by all reports is broken. It takes years to process applications. Family separation -- a particular concern of the church -- is significant. People who try to play by the rules often find themselves lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth.
Those who simply cross the borders to find jobs are often exploited and always live in fear of discovery and deportation.
The church recognizes the fact that a nation has the right to establish rules and regulations involving migration, but it also seeks to protect the migrant from exploitation and undue suffering. Parishes often find themselves on the frontlines of the immigration crisis, seeking to help those in their midst. The current immigration law and procedures are also impacting the church by hampering foreign-born priests and seminarians.
Not only do many church organizations seek to provide support and counseling for immigrants without asking their legal status, but the bishops have consistently spoken out for immigration reform.
In the words of Bishop Gerald Barnes, of San Bernardino, Calif., chair of the bishops' Committee on Migration: "The issue of immigration is too important for our elected officials to abandon. It cannot wait for several more years. Human beings are suffering and dying. Justice demands that our elected officials stop this suffering and mend our broken immigration system."
Church officials criticized the proposed legislation for not making the issue of separated families a priority, and have pressed for some sort of process for protecting migrant workers and creating a process for "permanent residency."
They have also asked for greater economic development for neighboring countries so that the pressure to immigrate is lessened.
It is unfortunate that the rhetorical level has risen so dramatically in the current debate, for we believe that most Americans want a just system that prevents exploitation and gives willing applicants a chance at a new life. Concerns about overtaxed social resources such as schools and healthcare systems are legitimate. So is the concern of business leaders for current and projected labor shortages. We urge our legislators to have the political courage to unite and fix our broken system, not letting this opportunity pass once again.
In the meantime, the church will continue to welcome the foreigner, following a Gospel mandate that does not distinguish between legal and illegal, does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity or religion. Always, we should see Jesus in the face of the foreigner, and we want to be able to say: "Yes, Lord, when we saw you hungry, unclothed, ill, even in prison, we helped you."
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