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Immigration Laws Cause Heartbreaking Situations

January 25, 2012

By Sister Patricia P.

I feel fortunate to have been able to attend the conference “Immigration: A 50-State Issue” sponsored by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I was able to connect the heart-breaking situations of immigrant families I work with in Maine to the national statistics and laws discussed.

It was a hard choice at first, between attending the rally to close the School of the Americas or this conference.  The SOA action was important because it addresses some of the root causes for the instability of many Central and South American countries, but the conference won out because of the immediate connection with my ministry.  Besides the information gained regarding current trends and legislation, it provided opportunity to reconnect to others in the same ministry and to form new connections.

What were some of the learnings and high points?    Most of the conference dealt with undocumented immigrants, especially Hispanic immigrants, who comprise the largest group.  We heard much about the restrictionist Arizona and Alabama laws, and the potential copycats. The effects of these laws are heartbreaking in that they break up families and deny legal personhood to those who are undocumented.  These laws also try to criminalize Christian charity.

The question arose: how can we translate Catholic social teaching into terms people in the pews will accept and be willing to make changes?  To focus on children will often resonate.  We need to humanize the effects of the bills on the children, families and citizens. There are 5.5 million children who live in mixed-status family, in which some relatives are legally in the U.S. and others are not. If one of the parents is deported, the effects on the children are difficulty in sleeping and eating, declining academics, crying and speech problems. Because of the absence of one of breadwinners, there is decreased food security and living in crowded quarters.

I remember one young mother whose husband was deported. She couldn’t pay the rent on her earnings alone; her priority was her 3-year-old son.  She rented a room in a small apartment where a number of other families were living – one family per room with a shared kitchen and bathroom.  The ceiling in her room was drooping and since it was an old building not kept up, my fear was that the peeling paint contained traces of lead that could harm the child.  The one queen-sized bed filled the room and everything else was piled against one wall.  There were little moths everywhere – hundreds of them!  Many homes I visit have similar circumstances – one family per room in apartment buildings run by slum lords who have no concern for the health and well-being of their occupants.

Sometimes a mother is detained for deportation and her children placed in foster care.  ICE does not facilitate her court hearings for custody and once removed, she cannot appear for the hearing so is listed as “abandoning” her children.  In 15 months, her parental rights are terminated.  This is a terrible tragedy for both mother and child.

In 2010, there were 31,000 persons removed for “criminal traffic violations”, which in essence meant driving without a license, often after a random stop in which no traffic violation was incurred other than a broken taillight.  Remember the law that made the speed limit 55 mph?  How many of us drove at 55?  Were we picked up for a criminal offence?  Are we when we drive 70 mph today on the turnpike?

The conference was full – each speaker brought up issues and situations that I could easily put faces on.  I do not feel paralyzed by the seeming futility of the situation, but rather energized to continue advocating for people who have been the object of much scapegoating. One of my great concerns is that no one seems to address the root causes of the migrations and the effects of globalization, as in the NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements that benefit the US but not the countries where we set up our corporations.

Remember, every piece of food that you eat has been touched by a Mexican worker somewhere in its journey from field or farm factory to your plate.  And every one of these persons has a God-given dignity that needs to be respected.

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