Migrant Couples and Families: Arizona’s New Law
Immigration reform must “bring migrants out of the shadows so that they can live with their families without fear,” U.S. and Mexican church migration leaders said May 19, as Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon met in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama. They urged Obama and Calderon “to focus upon the issue of immigration and how it impacts the most vulnerable, the migrant workers and their families.”
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, Utah, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Bishop Rafael Romo Munoz of Tijuana, Mexico, head of the Mexican Episcopal Conference Migration Commission, said in a joint statement at the time of Calderon’s state visit that “it is essential that immigration reform legislation become a priority.”
They “respect the obligation of both countries to ensure the integrity of their borders and the security of their peoples,” Bishops Wester and Munoz said. At the same time, they believe these goals can be achieved “without sacrificing the basic human dignity and rights of the migrant.”
The opportunity ought to be seized for the United States and Mexico “to work together to prevent illegal immigration in a humane manner, not in a way which places total emphasis on enforcement measures,” the bishops said.
They commented that the U.S. immigration system currently “does not provide sufficient legal visas or legal status for immigrants to work in jobs that are important to the U.S. economy.” And in Mexico, they said, “more attention should be paid to the creation of living-wage employment for low-skilled workers so that they can stay at home and support their families in dignity.”
A concern that immigration law not divide married couples and not divide children from parents is among concerns punctuating the U.S. bishops’ continuing calls for immigration reform. After Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed her state’s new immigration-enforcement law April 23, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson wrote that he feared, among other concerns, that it “creates the risk that families will be split” and “makes criminals out of migrant children and teens who had no choice but to accompany their parents here in their search for a better life.”
In an early-March statement prior to passage of the state law, Arizona’s bishops expressed concern over “high-profile measures relating to immigration that … could divide families.” The bishops urged legislators not to “create new problems for families.”
After the signing of Arizona’s law, many U.S. Catholic leaders reiterated their conviction that immigration reform is essential. The Arizona law criminalizes the act of being in the state without proper documentation. It permits police officers to detain individuals for questioning based on what Bishop Wester described at the time of the law’s signing as “a very low legal standard.”
In an April 27 statement on behalf of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Wester said Arizona’s law “could lead to the wrongful questioning and arrest of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as the division of families — parents from children and husbands from wives.”
In an October 2008 speech, Bishop Wester outlined basic principles in the church’s approach to immigration reform, expressing particular interest in reform that helps to keep families together. He said that “as many as 52 percent of immigrant families are of ‘mixed’ status, in which at least one family member is undocumented — in many cases the parents have no legal status, while the children are U.S. citizens.”
Bishop Wester called for reform that “prevents families from being ripped apart in harsh enforcement actions.” Furthermore, he said, “the enforcement of U.S. immigration law need not be conducted in a manner that undermines basic human dignity.”
For example, he observed, immigration enforcement raids “fail to meet this test, as they separate parents from children and alienate immigrant communities.” The bond between parent and child is “sacred,” Bishop Wester said, and it “must be honored and not used as a cudgel.” It is difficult to imagine “the fear and anxiety of both parents and children” when children are left after enforcement raids to come “home to empty houses,” he said.
Bishop Wester encouraged immigration reform that has family unity or family reunification as one of its key objectives.