Immigration reform seen as way to improve lives

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

An attorney called it broken, a 16-year-old Catholic school student said it has meant that she cannot visit her grandparents and the former director of the National Farm Worker Ministry said it is a threat to the U.S. agricultural system.

These three speakers were part of a forum on the U.S. immigration system and the need for reform, hosted by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare's St. Louis chapter Nov. 15 at the Highlands Golf Course inside Forest Park. Another speaker, Vanessa Crawford-Aragon, explained the need to urge the U.S. House of Representatives to bring a reform bill to a vote in the House, where she says more than enough yes votes exist to pass the bill, but it is being held up by House leaders.

Ken Schmitt, an immigration attorney with U.S. Legal Solutions, said the immigration system is at odds with the concept of family unity.

It also makes little sense when there is a demand in the United States for workers at a time when the Baby Boomer generation is aging and retiring and a jump start is needed in the economy, he said.

The Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC), in a commentary on immigration reform, has noted that labor demand in the United States has increased while birth rates have declined. Citing a report by the Pew Research Center, the MCC stated that in 2011 the birth rate dipped to its lowest level ever. The MCC also points to economists who have concluded that in general, immigrants and native-born workers complement each other in the skills they bring to the marketplace with little impact on the wages of native-born workers.

The effect on families wanting to sponsor their relatives in coming to the United States particularly has been affected by legislation passed in 1997, Schmidt said. He called the immigrants he has contact with "hard-working members of our churches and communities."

Schmidt is particularly affected by seeing immigrants in the United States without documentation facing deportation when they have children born in the United States. These U.S. citizen children, if they leave with their parents, are then left without a country, he noted.

"This is just in conflict with the idea of building up our families and our communities," Schmidt said. "We are talking about people who are not criminals. They came here to feed their families."

Naomi Carranza, a junior at Notre Dame High School in south St. Louis County, came to this country with her parents as a 9-year-old. She said she was in her first year of high school when she volunteered to do service work helping children with disabilities and was asked for her Social Security number. She learned that she did not have one and that fact could halt her dream of someday attending college. Her younger brother likewise faces the unlikelihood of fulfilling his dream of serving in the U.S. Navy.

With the help of Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, Naomi has met the requirement of a temporary new federal deferral program that provides her with a work permit and driver's license as well as the opportunity to attend college. Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, a Catholic Charities agency, has worked on more than 120 deferrals, and 80 percent are of Catholic school children attending Nerinx, St. John Vianney, De Smet and other schools.

Carranza has not been able to return to Mexico to visit her grandparents. "That has torn me apart. It's hard. It really is," she said.

She has been invovled with Metropolitan Congregations United in telling her story to the community.

Virginia Nesmith, former executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, told of agricultural workers who are in the United States but have no documentation. Though some are treated well, they are subject to abuse, she noted. Current legislation passed by the U.S. Senate and awaiting action in the House is a compromise supported by a coalition of agriculture businesses and farmworkers, Nesmith said.

"The only people not coming together on this bill is Congress," she said.

Without enough farm workers, she noted, "we'll have less food security. We could lose our ability as a nation to produce our own food."

The bill, she said, "would give people working in back-breaking labor the opportunity for citizenship and the ability to not go to work in fear."

Twenty-nine faith leaders and religious communities -- including Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and 16 Catholic communities of men and women religious -- earlier put together an interfaith platform on humane immigration reform. It states that humane immigration reform "would help put an end to this suffering, which offends the dignity of all human beings."

The platform, which cites Scripture, adds that "we are dedicated to immigration reform because we value family unity, justice, equity, compassion, love and the humane treatment of all persons."

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has produced a new video promoting immigration reform. See the video, plus other resources, at www.archst.org/immigration.

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