The Senate needed 60 votes to break the filibuster, but fell five short, with 55 against it and 41 for it.

The forum, sponsored by the Voice of the Poor committee, advocacy arm of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, addressed the immigration issue from the perspectives of Jesuit Fr. Jose Moreno, pastor of St. Patrick and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes, Milwaukee; Sheila Cochran, chief operating officer and secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO; John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette University; and attorney Joseph Rivas, immigration law specialist, Hochstatter, McCarthy, Rivas & Runde, S.C.

Not a new problem

Immigration is not a new problem, but is one that has existed for a long time, said Fr. Moreno, “…and I don’t think the original initiative was from Mexico – it was from the states bringing the first foreign person to the states,” said Fr. Moreno, noting that more than half of the parishioners in his parishes on the south side are undocumented immigrants who have children who were born in or brought to the U.S. very young.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest Mexican parish in the archdiocese, Fr. Moreno said second, third and fourth generation Mexicans come from families that traveled to the states as part of the Bracero program, which, as stated on the National Museum of American History’s Web site, began in 1942 after the United States initiated a series of agreements with Mexico to bring in laborers to combat shortages existing post World War II. Short-term labor contracts allowed about two million Mexican men to travel to the United States to work on farms and railroads, the site said.
“And this Bracero program was very successful for both, for the states because they needed the workers, and for Mexico because Mexicans started to realize it was a way of making their own living going back and forth,” Fr. Moreno said, explaining that this way of life led to the creation of a new culture in Mexico – “Vámos al norte,” which translates to “Let’s go to the North (the U.S).” He said that the circular movement of workers that was immigration wasn’t viewed as a problem at the time.

“Everybody was profiting because here the employers had good labor, cheap, not expensive and also those Mexicans … they all had their needs to survive, to work, to be able to feed their families, and also the Social Security administration (benefited) because all workers paid taxes but they got no benefits – zero – no health benefits, no retirement, no anything because they were just like migrant workers going back and forth,” the priest said.
When the Bracero program ended in 1964 and workers were no longer needed, the flow of undocumented immigrants continued.

Immigrants live in ‘horrible panic’

Fr. Moreno said undocumented immigrants live in “horrible panic” because they never know if or when they will be deported.
“All we have to do is to know one family, that’s all,” Fr. Moreno said. “There was a wonderful family in my parish … and they used to come every Sunday to church, and, of course, they had problems with immigration. (The) father had no papers so he was deported, and last Sunday I finally could see this woman, but now she’s on the sidewalk selling tamales to support her children because now she has no husband.”

Cochran, who began her work with the Milwaukee Area Labor Council in 1999, agreed.
“This is a problem about working people and families … unless you really see it and personalize it, I don’t think you really get it or understand it,” she said.

Cochran put a face to the immigration issue with an example from 2006, when a group of mostly Mexican men worked for 30 days tearing down a building that contained asbestos on the north side of Milwaukee. The men were never paid for their work because the employer disappeared when the job was completed.
“No law would touch them or protect them,” she said. “So the laborers’ union decided – their national level – that if they were going to grow and continue to prosper in the United States, that they were going to organize the Latino workers.”

The asbestos workers may not have been legal, “but I know they have a union card. I know they’re going to get protected, and I know they’re going to have some semblance of dignity in the way that they work and that no employer’s going to exploit them while they’re working,” said Cochran, who believes immigration and racism must be discussed together.

Arizona law sparked anger

Recently, the AFL-CIO publicly voiced opposition to the “supposed” immigration reform brought about with passage in April of the Arizona law aiming to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants, Cochran said.
“Many years ago we did this, we brought workers to this country. …and when we think about the things that we do to people in this country, we need to think a little bit deeper than the sound bytes that are delivered to us by FOX News,” she said.

“Fr. Moreno’s right. This is a political problem and this has become a political football, but these are people that we’re dealing with. … There’s not one single, solitary thing that you consume, there’s not one floor that you walk on, there’s not one sheet that you sleep on and there’s not one hospital that you have been in or a hotel that has not been affected by an immigrant worker and if you really think about it, the very basis of the Catholic Church, especially the heart of it, is in immigrant communities, and there has to be a time when we stop fighting a political fight and talk about the human beings that we support.”

A political scientist, McAdams said the U.S. needs “some kind of comprehensive immigration reform” beginning with a path to citizenship for people who are already in the U.S.
“Now, it shouldn’t be merely an amnesty; we are talking about real lawbreaking here and there needs to be some punishment,” McAdams said.

He said a punishment that is too Draconian, or severe, will perpetuate the problem among undocumented immigrants who can’t comply.
“We continue to have an underground economy, we continue to have a situation where we have a lot of people who are here in legal limbo without legal status, without citizenship etcetera, so it needs to be some middle ground.”
McAdams also presented a “more controversial” solution, saying that the U.S. needs to control its southern border with a physical or electronic fence, enough border control agents to prevent the flooding of undocumented immigrants into the country, and it needs “real employer sanctions” that work and impose real penalties on employers when they employ illegal immigrants. McAdams said this situation is “politically tough,” because immigrant advocates and businesses alike don’t want these sanctions.

Barrier, sanctions ‘necessary’

According to McAdams, a physical barrier and sanctions are necessary because many undocumented immigrants don’t enter the border illegally. Rather, they enter with a legal VISA, but overstay their VISA, he said. He noted that the intent of what he sees as failed legislation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, was to provide amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the country and place sanctions on employers to eliminate the incentive for hiring the undocumented.

“Obviously, it didn’t work,” he said, reiterating that without border control it’s back to Simpson-Mazzoli.

“If you don’t like the idea of controlling the border – we can like it or not like it – but that’s a necessary part of the package,” McAdams said. “It’s not going to pass Congress unless there are credible guarantees that, yes, the clear majority of illegals here now will get legal status, but we won’t continue to have a very, very large influx of illegals with all the messiness that involves,” like issues of whether they can get driver’s licenses or state tuition at state universities.
“It’s not just something concocted by FOX News or conservative talk radio; there are real public policy issues and questions here,” he said, adding that it’s important to understand that immigration activists contribute to the problem.

“They are pretty much committed to the idea that we won’t enforce immigration law. Now, legislators looking at the situation might say, ‘OK, path to citizenship, but we do after providing a path for citizenship to the illegals that are already here, we do have to control the border.’” A fair number of activists and people in Congress may undermine the program. “So, if one part of the package, doesn’t have credibility, the whole thing fails…. It has to be a package,” he said.

McAdams disagreed with Cochran about race and immigration going hand in hand.
Border advocates not racist

Calling someone who wants to control the border racist sends the wrong message, said McAdams.
“What you’re doing when you do that is you’re insulting people who have to be drawn into any solution,” he said. “You’re insulting people who would be open to comprehensive immigration reform, but if you start calling them racist, you simply alienate them. …and so the strategy has to be to pull in majorities of Democrats, majorities of Republicans with a package of policies that both sides can buy.”

McAdams said such a compromise may be possible, but it won’t be easy and will involve concessions from both sides.
“And again, one of the concessions the immigration activists have to make is they have to make it clear, they have to be able to credibly promise that if we have a path to citizenship that the border will be controlled,” he said, adding that if these things are established, an honest debate can be had on issues like how many Mexicans should be legally allowed in the country.

“In the best of circumstances, you can put a package together that makes everybody better off. Real comprehensive immigration reform would do that, but uncompromising attitudes on either side aren’t going to achieve that,” McAdams said.

Rivas said some problems stem from perceptions of immigrants and a misunderstanding of terms and processes involved, noting that an immigrant can legally enter the U.S., for example, on a student VISA, and become illegal – without committing a crime – by dropping a course that changes his or her full-time student status.

“But the perception is if you are here illegally, you’re a criminal. Half the undocumented people who are here in the United States, and there’s a measure between 11 million and 15 million, half of them came here legally and overstayed or violated their VISA status. …,” Rivas said. “Those people came here legally and overstayed, but they are just as deportable as those who snuck in across the border.”

More than Mexicans immigrate

Rivas said it’s not only Mexicans who are being deported.
“We are deporting people to Germany, to France, to England, to China, Canada; no one talks about those illegal aliens, but there are more than just people from south of the border that are here illegally and are deportable and they do get deported,” he said, adding that a resolution to the illegal immigration situation must focus on more than the southern border, because if the U.S. does “create a 50-foot fence, someone’s going to create a 51-foot ladder,” he said.

Rivas said problems with immigration began with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, a law that restricted and controlled who could come to the U.S. He also said that the 112th Congress’ proposals in January that will put focus on criminalizing undocumented immigrants, increasing restrictions on the process and increasing the roles of local police officers, won’t help because “they’re not fixing the root of this problem, which is the 1952 act and that’s what has to be done.”

Rivas explained that the U.S. has three main issues – national security, economy and immigration, noting that the U.S. must depend on other factors to solve the first two issues, but that’s not the case with immigration.

“This is totally under our control. We can fix this all by ourselves,” he said. “We don’t need to rely on any other country, any other economy. We can just go and fix this. I think what we should do is take all our congressmen, put them in a room, lock the door and say, ‘Fix this.’”

Includes information from Catholic News Service