March 16-22, 2006
Slant : ArticleThe Illegals
We need tougher border laws -- not malicious ones.
Some in the audience had lived here for decades and had grandchildren born in the United States, while others had arrived only a few months ago. One man told me that he'd once paid $20,000 to a woman who guaranteed him work authorization, but he'd lost track of both her and his money. Three of the women held small children who seemed blissfully unaware that their lives were built on shifting sand, and that at any moment their mothers could be deported.
Gathered in the basement of a New Jersey church, drinking coffee and munching on doughnuts, they listened as I explained how difficult it had become to legalize their status. Fully expecting my listeners to become discouraged and leave without taking my number, I was surprised when most made an appointment at my office the following week. Hope, it seems, is the last thing to die.
I am not an unbiased observer. For more than 10 years, I've dealt with the serpentine and often incoherent regulations that govern immigration to the United States. It's never been easy, but it became much more difficult after 9/11, when the idea of immigration became inextricably tied up with the issue of terrorism. It is, of course, understandable, after a group of foreign nationals carried out the deadliest domestic attack in the history of the United States.
Unfortunately, instead of directing our anger at the perpetrators of the attack, some Americans, fueled by a dormant yet palpable xenophobia that dates back to the Chinese Exclusion Act, decided to take the easy way out and lay the blame at the feet of the "illegals"those who had crossed the border without permission and were living and working among us. It is this sentiment that, in part, fuels the proponents of HR 3447, a bill that would expand the definition of alien smuggling. The bill states that anyone who "assists, encourages, directs or induces a person to reside in or remain in the United States" can be subject to criminal penalties. [News, "Alien Notion," Helen i-lin Hwang, Feb. 2, 2006].
To be fair, the anger is not entirely unjustified. As a nation, we have every right to expect that our borders are respected, and not every representative who voted for HR 3477 is a xenophobe. But the sheer scope of the bill is staggering, and some of its provisions nothing less than malicious.
Under the terms of HR 3477 as currently constituted, priests who give spiritual and material assistance to undocumented aliens could be charged with criminal offenses. Attorneys and other immigration advocates who provide legal counsel could also be considered "alien smugglers," although it is less likely that they would be the targets of prosecution. The twin protections of confidentiality, priest-penitent and attorney-client, would be placed at risk.
The men and women who were gathered in that church basement last week were human beings. Yes, they were also lawbreakers; they had entered the country without permission. But a law that would make it illegal to give them assistance, even a bowl of soup, will not stop the flow of human cargo over the border. It will only expand the class of criminals to include that portion of society which honors the fundamental precept that we are all our brothers' keepers.
Responding to the legislation, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles has said that he would instruct the priests and lay Catholics within his archdiocese not to comply. And while the Catholic in me applauds his humanity, the attorney in me sees a better way to justice than mere defiance.
On March 27, the Senate will consider the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006." While it still places emphasis on enforcement and interdiction, like HR 3477, it injects a dose of economic reality into the debate, and provides an avenue for the undocumented to become tax-paying, contributing members of society. If you believe that the shadow society must be abolished, contact Sen. Arlen Specter's office at 202-224-4254 and urge him to support legislation that protects both our borders and our values.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer in Center City.