“Almost all of the people I know don’t have papers,’ Rosaria said. “I wanted to drive safe, have insurance, live legally here.’ The young Mexican immigrant came to central Illinois on a short-term tourist visa, desperate for work she couldn’t find at home.
She found a factory job, began studying English, and applied for permanent residency. She began paying into Social Security and legally obtained a driver’s license. Six months later, a homesick Rosaria (not her real name) left her job in Illinois and returned to Mexico, hoping to find employment that would enable her to stay in her native land. That proved impossible. She called her old employer, who jumped at the chance to have her back. When her application for legal residency was rejected, the employer hired a lawyer at his own expense in an effort to keep an essential worker.
That lawyer helped Rosaria reapply, but it became apparent that her track record as a valuable employee and her desire for higher education were not enough. “They handled my case—I don’t know why—very fast,’ she said. “I’m 25, and I got [an INS form] requesting that I prove I have 10 years of business experience.”
Without that experience, there is no hope that Rosaria’s request for legal status will be approved. It’s a matter of time, her lawyer told her. She will have to leave the country of her own volition, or face jail and deportation.
“I am not going to do that.”
The lawyer did offer her two other options. “He told me I could change my name and move to another state,” she said. That would prolong Rosaria’s illegal status. “I am not going to do that.” she insisted. The lawyer’s other suggestion? That she quickly marry a legal resident. “I am not going to do that either.”
The Catch-22 for Rosaria, and thousands of immigrants like her, is that the U.S. economy requires the labor they are willing to supply, but municipal, state, and federal governments provide them with few rights and protections in return.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, 75% of all immigrants to the U.S. are here legally. Of the 25% that are undocumented, 40% overstayed their temporary visas, not because they wanted to, but because they have no recourse to citizenship.
In some ways, Rosaria’s case is atypical. She has skills, and an employer who was willing to support her bid for citizenship. More typical is the story of Maria, who, though undocumented, is working and living in northern Illinois with her husband, a legal resident, and her daughter, a U.S. citizen. After a trip with her daughter to visit family in Mexico, Maria was not allowed to reenter the U.S. Her husband drove to the border to pick up their daughter, and Maria had to walk long distances across a dangerous desert to be reunited with her family.
“That includes us”
Few Springfield Dominicans who work with immigrants would deny the need for immigration reform. It is the kind of reform being promoted by lawmakers that they question. “The major issue facing immigrants in the U.S. today is the lack of meaningful reform which will grant them legal status and basic rights in the United States,” said Sister Kathleen Ryan, administrator of the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora, Ill.
At press time, it appeared as if the Senate committee studying pending immigration reform legislation would modify the most stringent proposal, a bill passed by the House that would make all undocumented immigrants and anyone who works with them or assists them guilty of a felony. “That includes us,” Sister Kathleen said, referring to congregation members who work with immigrants at a number of ministry sites throughout the Midwest.
“Primero Dios,” God first
The U.S. Catholic Church has launched a major grassroots efforts to educate citizens about what is at stake in this debate. A website sponsored by the bishops and other official Catholic organizations lists 11 provisions in the bill the House passed they consider “egregious.” Those provisions include port-of-entry detention for immigrants who are asylum-seekers, trafficking or abuse victims, or children; the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the elimination of the current visa lottery program.
The U.S. bishops support an alternative to the House bill, one sponsored by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy. It provides undocumented immigrants with a path to U.S. citizenship and protects their dignity and human rights. This is the bill favored by most immigrant advocacy organizations, including the sisters ministering at the Aurora and Chicago Dominican Literacy centers. They do not support the guest worker program being promoted by President Bush, because it requires the workers to return to their home countries after six years.
“That will never happen,” Sister Kathleen explains. “There are 11 million known undocumented people here now, many of whom have been here for more than 10 years. They are homeowners. They are part of the permanent U.S. labor force and have children who are citizens,” she said.
Sister Paulita Philippe works with the growing Spanish-speaking community around Rantoul, Ill. Her experience in Rantoul mirrors what she saw happen in Rogers, Ark. “We built [St. Vincent’s Church] in Rogers to seat 1,500. Now there are 3,000 Hispanic parishioners who are attending the parish,” she said.
For Sister Paulita, there are many other benefits to the presence of an immigrant population. In addition to contributing an estimated $100 billion dollars annually in local, state, and federal taxes, Sister Paulita says, “Latinos have a rich faith. In the secular society they witness by their frequent response to life: “Primero Dios,” God first. Three bishops have told me that they see Latino Catholic immigrants as a blessing to our Church and nation.
Dominicans in Ministry Feel the Heat of Immigration Debate, Spring 2006, Vol. 6 No. 2