Advocates set sights on immigration reform

Migrant-worker advocates on the local and national levels believe 2010 will be the year Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform advocates say is way overdue.

"The anticipation is immigration reform will be a hot topic in 2010," said Earl Eichelberger, director of human services for the New York State Catholic Conference. "We hope 2010 is the year that something happens. It looks like that may be possible."

Although Congress focused almost exclusively on health-care reform in 2009, the Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee set its sights on advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. The push for such reform is the committee’s 2009-10 advocacy issue and the focus of the annual Public Policy Weekend Feb. 13-14. The weekend will tie in with a postcard campaign that is being conducted by the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigration project, said Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Wayne and the Finger Lakes counties.

In preparing for Public Policy Weekend, Putnam Marchetti has been working to educate parish administrators and staff throughout the 12-county diocese about the immigration issue so they can inform their parishioners. The goal is that parishioners, having received information about the lives of migrant workers and the need for a system that doesn’t treat them as criminals, will then sign postcards in favor of reform during Public Policy Weekend, she said. The postcards will be sent to local congressional representatives, Putnam Marchetti said.

The postcard campaign also will be highlighted during the church’s National Migration Week Jan. 3-9 under the theme "Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice." The nation’s bishops are calling for reform that includes:

  • broad-based legalization of the undocumented of all nationalities;
  • reunification of families;
  • a temporary-worker system that provides a legal, safe, humane and orderly pathway for migrants to enter the country;
  • restoration of due process for immigrants; and
  • abandonment of the current border-enforcement strategy.

A bill introduced by some members of Congress — who have grown impatient for immigration reform and have decided not to wait for the health-care debate to end — includes some of the reforms the bishops seek, such as family reunification and a legalization program for qualified undocumented immigrants. Illinois Rep. Luís Gutiérrez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Task Force, introduced the new legislation — Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP) — in the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 15.

"We have waited patiently for a workable solution to our immigration crisis to be taken up by this Congress and our President," Gutiérrez said in a press release. "The time for waiting is over. This bill will be presented before Congress recesses for the holidays so that there is no excuse for inaction in the New Year. It is the product of months of collaboration with civil rights advocates, labor organizations, and members of Congress. It is an answer to too many years of pain — mothers separated from their children, workers exploited and undermined security at the border — all caused at the hands of a broken immigration system. This bill says ‘enough,’ and presents a solution to our broken system that we as a nation of immigrants can be proud of."

In a Dec. 16 statement Gov. David Paterson announced his support of Gutiérrez’ bill.

"New York has always been a beacon of hope for immigrants from around the world and we must continue to take a leading role in working to overhaul the immigration system," he said. "I believe we have a moral obligation to solve this crisis, which is why I have long-supported reform that will create a secure, fair and rational immigration policy for our country."

A broken system

According to Putnam Marchetti, the immigration-reform issue boils down to fairness and dignity for immigrants, a point she hopes to make to those less familiar with the issue’s many facets by using information from the diocesan and national advocacy campaigns. And she said she hopes politicians understand that the loudest voice, which often is the one in opposition to reform, may not represent the majority.

"Comprehensive immigration reform fell apart last time (it was debated by Congress) because of some really divisive issues and some angry rhetoric and a lot of misleading information," Putnam Marchetti said. "What we’re hoping is people have come to the point where they realize that this broken system won’t be fixed until we do put in place some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. And that only coming together and speaking civilly will enable us to put together a plan that will work. That the way it is now isn’t doing anyone any good. It’s just of no benefit to have a whole group of people living outside of the law without protections for themselves but also separate. You know, living within our country and yet separate from our country."

In comments to the Center for American Progress on Nov. 13, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said a shift has occurred in regard to immigration-related issues and politics that make passage of a reform bill more attainable now than when it was last attempted three years ago.

The shift has been predicated on improvements in border security in the Southwest to combat drug cartels, better surveillance and inspection technology, and a sharp decrease in the numbers of people attempting to enter the country illegally, she stated.

"So even as we press to end this recession and get America back to work, we are determined to deal with long-lingering problems that cloud our future," according to Napolitano. "And another problem that has been punted from year to year, from Congress to Congress, from administration to administration, is the clear need for immigration reform. We all know the story: A steady influx of undocumented workers, crossing our borders illegally in search of work and a better life. A market among employers willing to flout the law in order to hire cheap labor. And as a result, some 12 million people, here illegally, living in the shadows — a source of pain and conflict. It is wrong. It’s an affront to every law-abiding citizen and every employer who plays by the rules."

The secretary will consider a multistep approach that includes a path to citizenship and a temporary-worker system and jibes with what farmers and migrant-worker advocates have been seeking for years.

"Our members and the people we represent and employ, they want any type of workable system that could actually stand the chance of passing in Congress and would help the workers," said Julie Suarez, public-policy director for the New York Farm Bureau. "Some of the workers want to become citizens but some do not. And our members believe very strongly that the workers should have a choice to what they would like to do. But that while they are here working in our fields, they should be compensated accordingly, treated fairly and not be subject to … harassment."

Alleged harassment of workers by U.S. Border Patrol officers is the subject of a complaint filed last month by a group of residents from Wayne County (see related story on page A9). The group seeks an investigation by officials from Homeland Security, its office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division into what it claims are tactics that include racial profiling and unlawful raids of workplaces and stores where workers congregate.

That kind of harassment not only compromises the dignity of these workers but also is having a negative economic effect on the farming community, said Carol May, who owns a 62-acre farm that is part of an apple growers’ cooperative in Wayne County.

Last year, May’s family harvested half the apple crop it usually does because of a lack of workers, added May, who also is a member of the diocese’s Public Policy Committee and participated in a JustFaith module on immigration led this past fall by Putnam Marchetti.

"People are afraid to come here (to this area)," she said. "People are harassed, even people who are here legally."

Farmworker labor bill

While farmers and worker advocates agree on the need for federal immigration reform to address such issues as enforcement and citizenship, their opinions differ on New York’s proposal to assist farmworkers.

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which was stalled in the state Senate’s codes committee at the end of 2009, was expected to be returned to the Labor Committee on Jan. 1 as per procedure, said Janet Kash, spokeswoman for Sen. George Onorato, the bill’s main sponsor.

Onorato will reintroduce the bill in the new year, she added.

"There’s certainly been opposition from the (state) farm bureau," Kash said. "But we’re continuing to talk to people on both sides of the issue to hopefully get it moving this year."

Opposing this bill is the New York Farm Bureau, and on the other side are such farmworker advocates as the Diocese of Rochester, the interfaith Justice for Farmworkers campaign and the state Catholic conference. The proposed legislation calls for farmworkers to have the same labor protections that other workers receive, including overtime pay, a day of rest and the right to collective bargaining.

Facets of the legislation, such as a 40-hour work week, would put state agriculture out of competition as an industry because such a large part of it is based on seasonal employment, said Suarez of the state farm bureau. Farming, therefore, is not on an equal footing with other industries, she contends.

"It is harder for a farmer to pull up roots in the ground and land, but farms will go the way of the manufacturing base in New York if this omnibus bill passes as it is," she added. "It is foolish to think that we can simply adjust when we compete in a global economic environment and win or lose sales based on less than a nickel per bushel (of crops). Legislative mandates matter, and when the labor bill is taken into context with the high property taxes, the increase in fees, the increase in bridge tolls and thruway tolls, energy and insurance costs of the past several years, there is rapidly becoming very little incentive for farmers to stay and farm in New York to provide food for New Yorkers.  We should move to a more friendly state, or a country like Mexico as larger farmers in Texas and California are starting to do. And as someone who cares about our farm families and has spent a lot of years in New York, it pains me to say it, but there it is. "

But Jordan Wells from the Justice for Farmworkers campaign said no one is trying to hurt the family farm.

"We’re looking for farmworkers to have coverage under the law as other workers have," he said. "The bill itself in a way would equalize and help level the playing field for the family farm that doesn’t reap the benefits as a larger farm that gets to exploit workers legally."

And Eichelberger said the state Catholic conference believes that room for negotiation with farmers does exist. Suarez and Dean Norton of Elba, Genesee County, the state farm bureau’s president, also said they would be willing to negotiate further.

"Our basic position is that farm work is hard work," Eichelberger remarked. "Farmworkers do an important job and should be treated like every other worker."

Call for social justice

As Catholics ponder all national, state and local issues surrounding farmworkers and immigrants, the biblical call to welcome the stranger is paramount, said Father Brian Cool, chairman of the diocesan Public Policy Committee.

"I don’t think people are as informed as they should be on this issue," he said. "People (sometimes) don’t integrate the Catholic perspective into their own understanding and the policies they support and don’t support. It’s an important topic for us as community to be involved in. We do have such a large immigration population here in Rochester and in the area. If we’re a not welcoming community, who is?"

And the basic right to human dignity is something all sides can agree on and identify with, Putnam Marchetti noted.

"I mean we all arrived in this country because for whatever reason, our ancestors sought a better life whether they were persecuted or whether they were hungry," she noted. "They sought a better life. So we can understand that history. People are still doing that. People do have a right to survive with some level of human dignity. Countries also have a right to set some limits on immigration and their border controls. In some ways, those are conflicting rights. But we can work through those because we also need to look at the common good both within our country and the world. Because that benefits all of us in the long run."

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