It needs to be fixed, yet no one can agree just how to solve the immigration issue in the United States. Some say that immigration reform involves building a wall to keep more undocumented immigrants from coming into the United States illegally, while others say the solution involves a combination of policies and border control.

According to 2003 pastoral letter, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” written by the Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States, the traditional church teaching on immigration, dating back more than a century, is that the church has a responsibility to “welcome the stranger.”

It’s an idea that’s rooted in the Bible and was part of “Kinship Across Borders: Christian Ethics and Immigration,” an April 12 talk presented at Marquette University by Kristin Heyer, associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University in California. More than 65 people gathered for the free presentation, which was part of Gathering Points: Tracking the Spirit in Challenging Times lecture series, that showed how Christian ethics illuminate the human impact of immigration polices, practices and rhetoric.

Heyer said that the Catholic tradition “emphatically opposes” patterns of reducing humans to objects or commodities that treat immigrants as economic units rather than identifying their full humanity.

“Over the past 25 years, the U.S. has consolidated markets for capital, goods and information, but simultaneously pretended that the North American labor markets would remain separate and distinct,” Heyer said. “So, the consequent mismatches between labor means and actual legal avenues for low-wage work have really contributed, in large part, to the present situation of undocumented immigration.”

With the recent figures, Heyer said U.S. immigration laws supply about 5,000 low-skilled, permanent residency visas each year, whereas the labor market demands about 300,000-500,000 full-time low-skilled service jobs per year.

“So, just to give some additional perspective to those numbers, because our current system allows for just these 5,000 unskilled applicants a year, at this rate, it would take 2,400 years to facilitate the re-entry of the 11 million undocumented residents,” she said, which is best illustrated by something she remembered from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, of someone holding a “No trespassing” sign in one hand and a “Help wanted” sign in the other.

Loneliness, isolation lead to family disintegration

The current policies on immigration are hurting immigrant families here and in their home countries, according to Heyer.

“Sustained family separation facilitated by current policies has a negative impact upon the social fabric within the U.S., as well as in immigrants’ countries of origin, so in many families – and I heard about this here in Milwaukee today – children grow up without knowing one or more parent,” she said, adding, “Loneliness and isolation can cause stress that can lead to family disintegration and, even studies are showing, pose public health risks.”

Heyer said that according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center last year, about half of unauthorized immigrant households were couples with children, and that about three quarters of those children were U.S. born citizens.

“And according to this Pew data, children of undocumented immigrants are nearly twice as likely to be poor as the children of legal immigrants or native parents,” she said.

Part of the problems exist because of an outmoded visa system that Heyer said disrupts family unity, harms immigrants and compromises the common good.

“A provision in place since the mid-‘90s requiring citizens and legal permanent residents to earn 125 percent of the poverty line, the federal poverty level has closed the door to legal immigration for many Mexican and Central American applicants,” she said. “And long backlogs in the family reunification categories have developed in recent years since the number of visas available annually is less than the number of prospective immigrants who await visas.”

Undocumented immigrants seen as units rather than human beings

Separation of families hurts undocumented immigrants and society, according to Heyer.

“The detrimental impact of family separation has been poignantly evident in the enforcement mechanisms that have escalated in recent years in the form of workplace raids under President Bush and the expansion of these 287 (g) programs under President Obama, among the state and local measures,” she said, in reference to the programs where local authorities work as federal immigration agents to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement catch illegal immigrants that pose a threat to the community or national security.

“Policies that prevent immigrants from attaining or maintaining family unity obscure their full humanity as spouses, as parents, as children,” Heyer said, noting that separation is devastating to families. Heyer also said that Jesuit Fr.Thomas Greene, immigration attorney and secretary of Jesuit Social and International Ministries in the U.S., “has argued that economics has become the source and summit of U.S. immigration law and policy,” where the undocumented immigrants are being treated more as economic units rather than human beings.

But Catholic ethics defends the sanctity of the family as domestic church and “its value as the cradle of society that fosters its welfare,” Heyer said. “Both personal and social development are intimately connected to the health of the family as a school of deeper humanity.”

‘They risk it because they love their families’

Melissa Sheridan, 33, a parishioner at Three Holy Women, Milwaukee, said that she’s seen the pain of separation firsthand with some of her male friends who are undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

“Some of them, their wives are back in Mexico and they send them almost every penny possible back to their families in Mexico,” Sheridan said in an interview with MyFaith, explaining that her friends risk crossing the border to see their wives as often as they can. “…they risk it because they love their families so much.”

Sheridan, who was adopted from Seoul, South Korea, came to America on Holy Thursday, April 12, 1979, when she was almost 1 year old. Her adopted sister came over on the exact month and date six years earlier, and both were baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. They gained citizenship “the easy way,” according to Sheridan, automatically through the adoption by their Irish parents, but she doesn’t take it for granted.

“I feel compassion for those people who come here illegally,” she said. “I mean, as a Catholic, I see them as children of God and beloved by the Father, and it’s difficult because I see so many un-Christ-like attitudes toward illegal immigrants among people who call themselves Christian, and that just hurts,” Sheridan said, especially when she sees how her friends make so many sacrifices to live their lives in America, yet constantly worry about health care for themselves and their children or what would happen if they were involved in an accident.

“They’re good men, and in a sense, they feel as if they’re living a lie and they don’t like that about themselves and they have this inner struggle,” Sheridan said, explaining that she just tries to be there for the friends with whom she prays and practices Spanish. She wants to help them – they oftentimes frequent the food pantries to make due – but she can’t because she is currently unemployed and searching for a job, so she does what she can.

“I pray with them and they’re just so grateful even for me praying with them,” she said, noting that praying with an open heart and mind is something everyone can do.

“It’s hard to put into words because my heart just hurts for these people because like I said, I got citizenship the ‘easy’ way, and before I met my friends from Mexico, I took for granted so many things that I had, and now I just am so grateful,” Sheridan said.

Confronting attitudes of ‘cultural superiority’

Heyer said she didn’t have a precise roadmap or all of the answers to the issues surrounding the topic of undocumented immigrants, but she said conversion of the heart and mind is needed.

“As the U.S. and Mexican bishops know, part of this process of conversion of mind and heart deals with confronting attitudes of cultural superiority, indifference, racism, accepting migrants not as foreboding aliens, terrorists or economic threats, but as persons revealing the presence of Christ and bearers of deep cultural values,” Heyer said, explaining that the conversion needs to shift the focus away from criminalization and simply sealing the border and toward identifying lasting solutions like trademark by justice, global development and paths to citizenship for those already in the U.S.

“I think reorienting the immigration paradigm in terms of human rights certainly doesn’t readily resolve these conflicting tensions, between rights or obligations, but to conclude where we began…” Heyer continued, “we’ll never be able to justify indifference to the death of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, and an approach rooted in these basic Catholic commitments must attend to both to reducing the need to migrate and to protecting those who have little choice but to do so. I think taken together these comprehensive measures can begin to serve, both justice and security, foster kinship and reduce undocumented immigration.”