By Riley Manning
The issue of immigration reform is one of many facets, be it political, economic, legislative, or otherwise.
But for the church, the Catholic church especially, the hope of immigration reform presents a moral imperative.
Pastoral minister of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Booneville Sheila Przesmicki brings to bear the seven pillars of Catholic social teaching to illuminate the issue.
“Three of the pillars in particular, ‘the dignity of the human person,’ commitment to the poor and vulnerable,’ and ‘the dignity of work,’ speak to immigration,” she said. “As Catholics, the idea of these people coming and taking our jobs away violates those teachings. It says they don’t have a right to that dignity because they were born on the wrong side of the border, because they didn’t have the luck of the draw.”
Betsy Dwyer works with Glenmary Missioners, a Catholic society of priests and ministers dedicated to small Catholic populations existing in rural areas and small towns. Specifically, Dwyer works with Mississippi and Appalachian areas made up of under 1 percent Catholics. One challenge for these areas, she said, is a lack of access to all sides of the conversation.
“We have a bad habit of talking in arguments instead of attempting to understand,” she said. “A big part of my job is listening and asking questions about people’s experience to get a sense of the big picture.”
That big picture, she said, is complex, and made up of several different pieces. One of those pieces, she said, lies in economics, which immigrants ultimately benefit. Dwyer pointed to Georgia’s immigration enforcement law, HB 87, which, passed in 2011, aimed to remove incentives for illegal immigrants to seek work in the state. As a result, that year $140 million in crops were left unharvested due to labor shortage.
“The peach industry crashed because no one wanted to work those jobs,” she said. “In a similar way, immigrants are integral to the fabric of Northeast Mississippi’s industry as well, the furniture industry for example.”
Przesmicki added that work conditions are harsh. Workers can spend 12 hours each day in the fields, even more during harvest time. In some places, Wisconsin for instance, workers are still subjected to crop dusting.
Another piece lies in the detention system. For one thing, Dwyer said, ‘detention’ means ‘prison,’ and when an illegal immigrant is arrested they are considered a federal prisoner. As federal prisoners, she said, prisons are reimbursed more to house them, and in some places, immigrants can be held for months.
“Prisoners are cash cows in service of budget cuts,” she said. “Going back to Georgia, a prison receives $80 reimbursement per night for a state prisoner, and $120 per night for a federal prisoner.”
Then there’s the piece of how illegal immigrants make it into the U.S. in the first place, by way of the ‘coyote system.’
Hopeful immigrants pay thousands of dollars to ‘coyotes,’ who smuggle them across the border. From there, the immigrants are completely at the mercy of the coyote. A good coyote, Dwyer said, will guide the immigrant safely to the other side, as per the arrangement. But bad coyotes are common, and abandon their passenger in the desert, taking the money for themselves. The border, she said, is strewn with bodies.
Once in the U.S., immigrants are often stuck, separated from their families, and unable to return home in the event of a family death.
“These are people coming out of desperation,” she said. “The question our country has to examine is in what ways have our economic policies enabled things like the coyote system, and how have they left these immigrants without much choice?”
Przesmicki said for these immigrants, the church can play a crucial role in their well-being as a refuge, a place to share faith and language.
“It’s a place where they can feel at home, where they can find strength in their shared faith,” she said. “They tend to travel to places where people or relatives they’re familiar with already are. These relationships and the church are pretty much the only support system they have.”
Though the Northeast Mississippi area struggles financially with such a small Catholic population, the church does assist in terms of food, references, finding work, connections within the community, and access to an immigration attorney. Most immigrants Przesmicki works with come from Mexico or Guatemala.
In July, Pope Francis himself called on the migration of unaccompanied children a “humanitarian emergency,” and urged the U.S. to provide more protection for them. In April, a delegation of American bishops held a Mass along the Mexican border, serving communion through the fence’s bars.
“Ideally, immigration reform seeks to be inclusive. As world citizens, we believe everyone should have a right to health, to safety on the street,” she said. “At the very least we are responsible for becoming more aware of what puts people in the situations that cause them to make such desperate decisions.”
• Last month, the Department of Homeland Security released data showing that about 5,500 unaccompanied children were arrested, barely half the amount of May and June.
• Arrests of parents with children also dropped by more than half to just over 7,400.
• A total of 24,500 adults and juveniles were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, down from the 38,000 in June, but far beyond July of 2013’s 15,000.
• From October 2013 to last month, 63,000 unaccompanied children entered the U.S., twice as many as the identical period from the previous year.