The Alien among You

Before Miguel began working Georgia’s onion fields, he earned a modest living in Mexico where he raised nine children. He cultivated seven acres of orange and coffee trees until global forces dramatically depressed produce prices. Unable to earn enough money to fix his house and replace his roof, he contracted with a coyote (a smuggler and guide) to cross the border and become an undocumented worker in the United States.

Today between 11 and 12 million undocumented workers fill physically challenging jobs in agriculture, construction, forestry and food processing. They comprise about 10 percent of restaurant workers, nearly a quarter of private household workers and more than half of the 1.6 million agricultural field workers. Undocumented workers play a key role in the US economy, yet immigration policy can either threaten their efforts through overzealous emphasis on enforcement, or welcome their contributions through new legal forms for collaboration.

Ever since 9/11, fear appears the motivating force behind most US foreign policy and homeland security. The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, passed by the House of Representatives, criminalizes undocumented immigrants as felons, turns police into immigration law-enforcement officers, mandates a 700-mile wall on the Mexican border and makes criminals of anyone who aids and offers support to undocumented immigrants. For some, immigration questions focus solely on legality. No room exists for considering the changed economic realities brought with globalization.

But note, worldwide approximately 130 million people live outside their countries of birth, many because of recent neo-liberal trade policies. These policies allow goods and finances — but not people — to cross boundaries. Worldwide, labor migration from the southern hemisphere has increased, because globalization has disrupted traditional forms of economic activity, especially agriculture, and people have no other choice. Mexico estimates more than 1 million farmers left their land because of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many displaced from their land head to the maquiladoras along the US border to find jobs with transnational corporations that pay wages averaging just $45 a week. Faced with dismal choices to provide for their families, many feel forced to risk their lives crossing the desert to become undocumented workers in the US.

The new economic reality shows that immigration represents a global issue with global causes requiring a global approach. Since the US economy depends so heavily on immigrant labor, our laws should reflect that reality and welcome the workers.

However, temporary worker programs must guard the rights of guest workers, because historically those programs proved abusive to the laborers. Mexicans suffered long hours plus poor working and living conditions during the bracero program from 1942 to 1964.

Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, coadjutor of Orlando and chairman of the US Bishops' Committee on Migration, summarized the component of a just guest-worker policy as a “comprehensive immigration reform that will provide opportunities for legalization of the undocumented currently living in the United States; temporary worker programs with full worker protections and a path to permanency; as well as a reform of our family immigration system that will allow immigrant families to reunite in a timely fashion.”

For people of faith, welcoming the stranger rings like a call from God: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you…for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lv 19:34, cf. Mt 25:35).

The challenge remains for the wealthiest nation on earth to become one of the most compassionate nations.

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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