February 27, 2009

Church leaders speak out against state immigration proposal

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

One family, two immigration statuses: the parents are undocumented, the children are American citizens.

This summarizes one of the primary problems in addressing the complexity of immigration law, especially those that penalize undocumented individuals.

The pathway to legal citizenship can commonly take more than a decade to attain and, for many, there is no clear or legal way to gain entry into the United States, but jobs and a better way of life are clearly an attractive and attainable reality. Not surprisingly, immigrants come in droves to America.

Federal immigration law clearly is broken, but can or should states intervene to fix it?

Some state lawmakers think so, but Church leaders and many others testified at a recent Indiana state Senate hearing in opposition to a proposed law that not only delves into federal territory, but also could create more problems for all immigrant families (documented and undocumented), employers and the health of an already ailing Indiana economy.

Senate Bill 580, the undocumented immigrants’ bill, which passed in the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee on Feb. 18 by a unanimous vote, would create additional penalties for undocumented immigrants who drive without a valid driver’s license, and create mandates and fines on businesses who employ undocumented workers.

Father Steve Gibson, pastor of St. Mary Parish in East Chicago, Ind., in the Gary Diocese, a parish with a large Hispanic community, and Franciscan Father Thomas Fox, who serves as a Hispanic ministry assistant in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, know firsthand the plight of the Hispanic families resulting from flawed federal immigration laws. They also realize the additional damage Senate Bill 580 will have on these families if it passes.

“The truth of the matter is there [were] 300,000 people who lost their driver’s licenses last year in Indiana,” Father Gibson said. “Most of them are the family wage earner. Then you add spouses and children to that, and you’re talking about a half a million people who have their whole security in jeopardy.

“What we have is a crisis here. These are the same people who were permitted to get driver’s licenses as long as they had some kind of identification. Now these same wage earners are being denied a renewal of their driver’s license,” Father Gibson said.

“Laws like this one and others like it that target businesses that employ immigrants are doing nothing but furthering the crisis,” Father Gibson said, “because when employers release employees who are undocumented or when authorities try to step in and get undocumented people and take them out, they usually are parents. The parents are not about to leave because they have wives and children.

“Everyone agrees the immigration laws are broken. The only way to address it is to make the law clear and respectful to basic human rights. Laws that go against the immigrant only exacerbate the problem. It doesn’t cure anything,” he said.

“The cities up here in northwest Indiana would collapse without the immigrant community. The many service jobs these people have serve in many respects as the backbone of the community,” Father Gibson said. “Without them, these cities would just collapse

overnight. And people know that. Mayors of the cities up here know that. That’s why some mayors are more kind than others to the immigrants.”

Father Thomas Fox, who also testified in opposition to Senate Bill 580, told lawmakers, “Everybody acts as if you can separate the undocumented and documented families, but this has been going on so long that there are hardly any families that are not mixed.”

Father Thomas said that when he was questioned by the Senate panel following his testimony, he was pleased that he was able to reiterate some of the points that the U.S bishops make in the area of immigration.

“It is not uncommon in areas where sheriffs are more aggressive that immigrants are being picked up and are being deported without an order of deportation nor have these people committed any crime,” Father Thomas said. “This kind of proposal encourages sheriffs and police officers to take more personal initiative to enforce federal immigration laws, which they have no business doing.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, testified in opposition to the bill, citing moral concerns that the Church has for families and the harmful impact that Senate Bill 580 would have on families and children around the state.

Angela Adams, associate attorney for Lewis & Kappes, a law firm that works with immigration law, said, “Our position is that immigration is a federal issue, and they are the best equipped to handle and enforce it. We definitely need comprehensive and meaningful immigration reform, but that needs to come from the federal government.”

Also testifying in opposition to the bill were representatives from the business community, who raised concerns about the negative impact the bill would have on businesses during this tough economic time.

Representatives from victims of domestic violence groups also raised concerns that the bill would further inhibit victims from getting needed help.

(Bridget Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To learn more about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org.)


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