Publication Date: November 17, 2011
By: Dana Clark Felty, for the Southern Cross
The Southern Cross recently reached out to parishes with a Spanish-speaking population to gather perspectives on how immigration laws have affected them. This is the third installment of a four-part series running through November.
Ed Sienkiewicz, Jr. can’t help but think about his own grandparents when talking about immigration.
From his mother’s side, they came from Italy. From his father’s side, they came from Poland. Both immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century by following the appropriate – though time consuming – legal channels to citizenship.
“I’ve always had a touch of a heartburn about the illegal immigrants who you see on the news coming across the borders in the dark of night,” said Sienkiewicz, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
“I was hoping the U.S. would do things on the federal level to curb and maybe even completely stop illegal immigration. Maybe we go back to the way it was in the early 1900s where you had an Ellis-Island type of pathway for those folks who are cued to come in legally as U.S. citizens or to come in with legal work visas.”
Sienkiewicz is a life-long, devout Catholic and just one of many in the Diocese of Savannah who approves of the state’s efforts to curb illegal immigration, according to Father Pablo Migone.
“There are a lot of Catholics with very strong feelings about this issue and not all of them are in line with what church says,” said Migone, parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Church, Warner Robins.
“It’s easier to get people on board on the church’s anti-abortion stance. When it comes to immigration, it’s not as easy to espouse what the church teaches on this issue.”
With the doubling of the state’s Hispanic population in the last decade, leaders in the Diocese of Savannah and the Archdiocese of Atlanta have worked to spread Catholic teaching on the issue and offer advice and encouragement to immigrants in their flock.
In 2006, Bishop J. Kevin Boland joined Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and bishops from North Carolina and South Carolina in drafting a letter to U.S. representatives calling for “comprehensive” immigration reform.
The letter described immigrants as economically and socially “vital” to local communities. Immigration reform should consider the reasons people leave their homeland and offer “a viable and workable path to citizenship,” a temporary worker program, measures that help families be reunited and due process protections.
“Enforcement-only measures do not realistically address the substantive issues facing our country,” they wrote.
Earlier this year, J. Kevin Boland Boland, Archbishop Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop of Atlanta, Luis R. Zarama, followed up with another letter noting “the destructive climate affecting the day-to-day struggles of our immigrant brothers and sisters in Georgia seems to have further deteriorated.”
That letter in response to Georgia’s passing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act, H.B. 87. acknowledged that some immigrants are living here illegally.
“However, these people do not deserve harsh treatment as major criminals,” they wrote. “Catholic social teaching is clear that persons have the right to find opportunities in their homeland but, when economic necessity or political upheaval ensues, they be given the opportunity to migrate in support of themselves and their families.”
The new law, H.B. 87, requires many Georgia businesses to use the federal e-Verify system, which checks the work eligibility requirements of newly hired employees.
Days before the bill went into effect in July, a federal judge put on hold two parts of the law pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. They include a provision that would allow police to investigate the immigration status of suspects who they believe have committed another crime and who cannot produce identification. The other part would punish those who – while committing another offense – knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants.
Other states including Arizona, Indiana and Utah have proposed similar measures that have been struck down as unconstitutional.
However, in Alabama, a federal judge upheld provisions that allow authorities to question people suspected of being illegal aliens and hold them without bond. It also lets officials check the immigration status of students in public schools.
Sienkiewicz said he understands why and supports states that are seeking to pass anti-immigration laws of their own. It’s about safety and protecting taxpayers, he said.
“Many times in the news you see illegal immigrants with D.U.I.s or involved in gang violence or they’re in an accident and maybe have hurt somebody,” he said. “Those kind of things paint a very negative picture, I’m sure, to state legislators who maybe see that the federal government isn’t doing a whole lot about it.”
Sienkiewicz is also concerned about illegal immigrants paying their fair share of taxes into the system if they expect to receive public benefits.
But Sienkiewicz isn’t in total disagreement with the church.
He supports the idea of providing pathways to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for a number of years and demonstrated good citizenship. Those might include young people with good scholarship and upstanding families who have clean records, have paid taxes and made contributions to their communities.
“I certainly feel for those individuals,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the federal government will work out something like the Dream Act or a situation to help those folks attain citizenship so they don’t have to hide or have to fill out bogus information on applications for scholarships or if they’re applying for work.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has backed the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) as “the right thing to do.” The federal proposal would provide a path to citizenship for young people who complete two years of higher education or two years of military service and meet the eligibility requirements for legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship.
As Executive Director of the Georgia Catholic Conference, Frank Mulcahy helps spread the Catholic perspective within the halls of state government.
He has traveled to more than a dozen parishes and missions across the state in recent months to give presentations to both English and Spanish speaking communities on Georgia’s new law and the church’s response.
Since H.B. 87 took effect last July, Mulcahy has encouraged Catholics who support the church’s stance to help change the tone of the conversation on immigration and to write their legislators.
“I think the hardest thing for (opponents) to understand is the difficulty and the sacrifice that many of these people are making to come to the U.S.,” Mulcahy said. “Too often, they’re being characterized as ‘illegal, end of discussion.’”
“It is a complex problem, and that’s why I think the discourse has to change. It can’t be summarized in a three-word sound bite.”
“How are we going to deal with a very complex problem in a way that is humane? It should be solved in a way that recognizes their dignity.”
Dana Clark Felty is a freelance writer in Savannah and former award-winning religion reporter for the Savannah Morning News.