While the U.S. Senate on May 25 passed legislation that included many of the key provisions of comprehensive immigration reform that had been proposed by immigrant rights groups across the country, including the Episcopal Church, Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), notes that the measure will likely face "serious assault" in the House of Representatives.
"The Senate, while modifying the legalization strategy proposed by advocates, at least made a pathway to permanent residence a possibility for approximately 8 million undocumented persons," said Parkins. "This step is encouraging. However, even this watered-down and more complicated approach to legalizing undocumented workers will face a serious assault in the House where the bias toward enforcement-only legislation is strong."
The Senate bill provides for an enhanced guest worker program as well as important steps in removing the staggering backlog of family visas.
While disappointed that some aspects of the hoped-for legislation did not survive the Senate debate, Parkins commented that "some of the principles that were so fundamental to the faith-based community, such as honoring the contributions of workers and reuniting families, made it through. We owe much to the voice of churches and colleagues from other faith traditions and certainly to the countless grass roots faith based initiatives in bringing us to this point in our struggle to reform our immigration system."
While applauding the progress made, many advocates feel that there is a significant unfinished agenda that needs urgent attention, particularly as the legislation moves into conference committee and, if the House leadership permits, emerges from conference offering a practical way for undocumented migrants to earn legalization.
Concerns exist about the tiered approach to earned legalization, which some see as unwieldy and probably unworkable. (The Senate bill provides that steps toward earned legalization will be determined by the length of U.S. residence for undocumented workers seeking this benefit.)
Parkins noted that other objectionable features of the Senate bill include the granting of immigration enforcement authority to local officials where public safety concerns might be sacrificed if immigrants see those who are to protect them as likely to report them to immigration authorities.
The Senate bill also broadens the definition of an aggravated felony to cover minor infractions of the law, making offenders off limits for the benefit of earned legalization.
Parkins identified as possibly the most serious flaw of the Senate bill the discretion granted the Government in detaining immigrants without the protection of an adequate appeals or review process. "When we remove traditional legal protections for some of the most vulnerable among us, we jeopardize those principles that are so fundamental to who we are as a nation. To impose more punishment for a longer list of misdeeds without offering legal redress produces a great imbalance in our system -- one that does not favor the marginalized" said Parkins. "This contradicts our theology and our tradition."
Parkins called on those who have been so diligent in their advocacy for immigration reform to pay close attention to the legislative process as it goes forward and to continue to speak on behalf of those principles that have framed the position of the Church during the weeks leading up to the Senate vote.
Both the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations (OGR), an active partner with EMM in advancing the position of the Church on immigration reform, and EMM, commended the many parts of the church in many parts of the country whose advocacy was critical to making the voice of the Church heard on behalf of a just and humane immigration bill.
Molly Keane, a legislative analyst with OGR, commented that "we now have a network of advocates which will ensure that our Church is an even more active player in the future of any immigration reform legislation."