It is no secret that one of the most troubling social issues of our time within our larger local community is the plight of the undocumented immigrant. This social issue has polarized local communities and even pit family members against other family members.
We are a nation of immigrants. Most of us trace our roots to far off places other than the continental United States. The times were different when our ancestors came to this country seeking a better way of life for their families. Many of our forefathers and mothers came through Ellis Island and began the challenging process of becoming American.
Although the process today is radically different and more complex than it was even sixty years ago, the reasons immigrants come to America today are the same as they were half a century ago.
People come here for a better way of life, for religious and political freedom. They believe now what my grandparents believed then, that America was and is the land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard.
Somehow, in recent times, we seem to have lost that vision that is so much a part of our history.
Immigration reform is long overdue. However, becoming more punishing and narrow minded almost sounds un-American and a violation of our Constitution.
With the enormous influx of undocumented immigrants and our lack of a coherent federal policy to handle this influx, local government has been a disaster in its' response to this very delicate life issue.
Instead of gathering a coalition of concerned citizens around this issue to discuss a just and fair resolution of this problem, government seems to fuel the fire of people's fear rather than come up with solutions that could reduce fear and strengthen people's hope for some reasonable resolutions.
Since 9/11, people have been petrified that our borders are being overrun with potential terrorists who are causing our nation to be unreasonably vulnerable.
Protecting our borders from terrorists is legitimately a very serious concern that should not be dismissed or minimized. However, the issue of undocumented immigrants is a very different issue. In justice, they should not be tied together.
Homeland Security should work diligently to protect our borders and the overall safety of the United States. Our federal and local governments should work more diligently to protect our freedoms and our way of life, but not at the expense of exploiting or demeaning the undocumented.
Locally, our approach to the undocumented has tended toward the punitive. Few have been willing to think and act outside the box. The issue is delicate and most complex. There are no simple answers or simple responses.
What is clear is that our approach or lack of approach to date has not been effective in addressing this serious concern. If the truth be told, it has only polarized people on all sides of the issue.
The House has recently passed a bill known as HR 4437, sponsored by James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Peter King of Seaford, New York. It is a "grab bag" of legislation that would expand the definition of "alien smuggling." If this bill becomes law, it will make it a felony to shield or offer support to undocumented immigrants.
In simple terms, it would be a crime to allow the undocumented to eat at local soup kitchens, to receive hospitality at a shelter, to be taught English, to be helped with obtaining jobs, housing or even day care.
In blunt terms, all those churches, temples and humanitarians that are more concerned about the dignity of a person than rules and regulations, would be in serious legal jeopardy.
What is even further disturbing is that the Senate is considering similar legislation.
Potentially criminalizing charitable acts is unconscionable. Religious institutions across our country are the backbone of a vast network of social services, not just for immigrants and refugees, but also for the working poor among us.
If the government were to prosecute all those involved, our social welfare network, as we know it would collapse.
On Ash Wednesday, a bold Catholic cleric from Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahoney, urged the people of the largest archdiocese in the United States to fast, pray and reflect on the need for humane immigration reform. The Cardinal urged his people to use the forty days of Lent as a time for urgent prayer around an urgent need.
He took an even bolder step by saying if Congress passed this new law that would make it a felony to shield or support illegal immigrants, he would urge every priest and faithful Catholic to defy the law and practice non-violent civil disobedience.
Religious institutions and religious leaders historically have been committed to working with the poorest of the poor. If we shackle their efforts, we will only further impair an already crippled system of social assistance.
In Suffolk County, the issue of the undocumented is already dividing communities. We have been unable to come to the table and address this issue with fairness and justice.
Clearly, those who are committed to assisting the undocumented should not feel compelled to becoming an arm of the immigration police, nor should works of mercy and compassion become federal crimes.
It seems to me that we need to move beyond our paralysis and not get stuck on the punitive side or the side that does nothing to acknowledge the need to respect the laws of the land.
Hopefully, we can create a conversation that will enable us to find a middle ground to discuss the various complexities of this issue.
Most of us have immigrant roots. All human beings, no matter where they live or where they come from, have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
We must re-visit our policies on immigration and reform. Until that occurs, we must respect and treat our undocumented brothers and sisters, as we would like to be treated.
Even though they are breaking the law because they are not documented, it does not give us license to exploit them regarding housing and employment. We tend to exploit our own poor who are documented, and that is wrong.
Until the federal government reforms our immigration laws, maybe we need to think outside the box. We need to create a non-punitive registry so people who work can pay a tax, support the hiring hall concept to help protect our neighborhoods and support greater resources to be spent to help the undocumented become documented.
There are no easy solutions to this complicated human issue. However, bills like HR 4437 that tend to be punitive don't address the problem. They only fuel the fire and further divide a nation that was founded by undocumented immigrants.