Undocumented? Illegal? Don’t overlook dignity

| April 25, 2014 | 0 Comments

When it comes to immigration, word choice is among the debated issues.

A caller to The Catholic Spirit complained recently about the use of the phrase “undocumented immigrants” in an editorial calling for more mercy in society, including in regard to deportations that split apart poor and vulnerable families. Describing them as “illegal aliens” would be more accurate, the caller said.

Indeed, there is disagreement about the best way to describe people who have entered the country illegally. Some use the term “illegal immigrant.” The Associated Press stylebook, the “bible” for most news organizations across the country, previously used that term, too, but now prefers descriptors such as “living in a country illegally” or “without legal permission.” The U.S. and Mexican bishops, in their pastoral letter on migration titled “Strangers No Longer,” use the phrase “undocumented immigrant” to describe such persons because they lack the required paperwork to be in a country legally.

In the end, no term or phrase is perfect. And, we should be cautious about any label we put on another person. No matter their status, every person, including every immigrant, has an innate dignity because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God. Many are brothers and sisters in faith. We must not forget that fact in debates over what to do about those who are “undocumented” or “illegal.”

But maybe more important to consider is why many risk their lives to come to the United States: to seek work and escape situations of abject poverty. The current immigration system is a broken one. There aren’t enough visas to accommodate the needs of the labor market and those seeking to reunite with families. Too often, the system contributes to the exploitation and abuse of migrants. Sadly, an estimated 11 million people are forced to live in the shadows.

The U.S. bishops have wanted to reform this system for a long time. Many of those who are undocumented or otherwise in the country in violation of the law have been here for years, working hard, raising families and contributing to their communities.

A bill passed last year by the Senate offered these individuals and families a “path to citizenship” — not carte blanche immunity, but the ability to become a citizen after many years, after paying any fines and taxes owed and learning English. The bill also included additional spending on border security. It’s not a perfect bill by any means, but it would go a long way toward helping the situation.

The political debate over immigration reform will continue. But, unfortunately, meaningful action on the issue does not appear to be on the horizon in the nation’s capital. Catholics, however, can make a meaningful contribution by contacting their U.S. House and Senate representatives and urging them to support the type of comprehensive immigration reform envisioned by the bishops.

Catholics can also help by reminding people about the real lives and struggles faced by today’s immigrants — many among the poor and vulnerable the Gospel commands us to help — no matter what adjective is put in front of their names.

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Category: Editorials