Looking for Welcome: Fearful of Harsh Border Enforcement Legislation and Trapped in Poverty, Many Immigrants Turn to Churches for Help

Article excerpt

Just a few months ago, immigrant rights supporters had hopes of passing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that would strengthen border security while also creating an urgently needed pathway to citizenship for the millions of people without documents who already live in the United States.

But in a surprise move, shortly before Christmas, the House of Representatives passed one of the most vicious anti-immigrant bills in more than a decade. If it were enacted into law, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 would make it a federal crime to live in the U.S. illegally, turning the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants into felons overnight. It would also make it a crime for social service agencies or church groups to shield or offer support to undocumented immigrants.

The extreme measures in this bill would have been unthinkable just a short while ago. It speaks to the extent to which immigration has become a political flashpoint for various groups who have come to see it as a major threat to the American status quo. While the immediate targets of this bill are those who cross into the U.S. without visas, Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), one of the bill's main supporters, has declared that his ultimate goal is a moratorium on all legal immigration and the denying of citizenship to children born to noncitizens.

News of the harsh legislation has heightened anxiety in immigrant communities. According to Brendan Curran, a priest at St. Plus V Catholic Church in the heart of Chicago's Mexican community, "There's so much fear, they won't even call the police or fire department if something is going on next door. If this becomes law, nurses and priests will not be able to do their work."

Faith institutions are often among the few forms of social support for people who have been separated from their families in other countries and shunned by native-born Americans. Churches and other faith communities are already dealing with the day-to-day struggles, especially poverty, faced by many immigrants. Draconian enforcement measures would make life that much harder, even for documented immigrants.

But according to Gabe Gonzales, lead organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIBR), any new legislation passed by Congress this year is likely to be enforcement only. "There will be massive changes in border enforcement, including building a wall along the Mexican border," said Gonzales. As a result, "the position of the undocumented will get incrementally worse. Harassment away from the border will increase along with increased enforcement of employer sanctions."

Congressional sponsors believe that these punitive measures will force the undocumented to leave. But in reality, most have little to return to and will try to stay, failing deeper into poverty as they are restricted to working in the cash economy.

IMMIGRATION POLICY HAS become so contentious--and so tied to the health of our society--because immigrants and their children now constitute one in every five people living in the U.S. Today Latinos and Asians constitute roughly 75 percent of all immigrants living in the U.S. (of 28.4 million foreign-born residents in the country in 2000, 14.5 million are Latino and 7.2 million are Asian).

The Asian and Latino populations have increased since the 1965 reforms of the nation's immigration laws. These reforms, which resulted from the civil rights movement, brought an end to decades of discriminatory policies that gave preference to European immigrants while completely excluding Asians from entering the U.S. This transformed the country into a much more profoundly multiethnic society than it had been in the past--changes that are having deep reverberations throughout American society.

The vast majority of immigrants come to the United States in search of a better life, making the difficult choice to leave behind their desperately poor families so that they can work in the U. …