'I was a stranger and you welcomed me'

Participants in the March for Farmworker Justice cross the Brooklyn Bridge into the New York borough of Manhattan May 21. The 200-mile march aimed to draw support for legislative action guaranteeing basic labor rights for state farmworkers. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Participants in the March for Farmworker Justice cross the Brooklyn Bridge into the New York borough of Manhattan May 21. The 200-mile march aimed to draw support for legislative action guaranteeing basic labor rights for state farmworkers. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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Over 37 years ago, when Annunciation House -- a sanctuary and home of hospitality that has served over 100,000 refugees, homeless poor and undocumented workers -- was started in El Paso, Texas, founding director Ruben Garcia and a few friends wanted to place themselves among the poor, to see where the poor would lead them. He said, "They took us to the undocumented -- the most vulnerable."

Garcia explained to me that since the undocumented have no legal status in the United States, they are forced to take undesirable, poorly paid jobs, which offer no benefits. Unlike poor U.S. citizens, undocumented workers and their families cannot receive food stamps, Medicaid, or housing assistance. They are at the lowest rung of American life.

I asked Garcia, "So why do they come?" He said, "They come because most often they and their families are extremely poor, and they cannot find jobs in their native countries that pay a living wage. And that the U.S. has many more low-skilled jobs than there are Americans who are willing to take them."

But why don't they enter legally? Because there are not enough low-skilled temporary worker visas available. And yet the demand for such workers is quite high. Plus the expense and burdensome government red tape required of employers tempts many of them to use "contractors" who often unscrupulously recruit undocumented workers.

According to The Hill, certain segments of the U.S. economy like agriculture, are overwhelmingly dependent upon illegal immigrants. "In terms of overall numbers, The Department of Labor reports that of the 2.5 million farm workers in the U.S., over half (53 percent) are illegal immigrants. Growers and labor unions put this figure at 70 percent."

Kevin Appleby, director of international migration policy for the Catholic-based Center for Migration Studies, told me the situation is filled with hypocrisy. Among many employers and politicians "there is a nod and a wink" to keep the system largely benefitting numerous employers often at the expense of undocumented workers who have virtually no rights.

Therefore, millions of foreign workers must secretly and dangerously -- moving through deserts and facing drug gangs -- cross the border to fill vacant American jobs in order to support their very poor families.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly supports immigration reform legislation that would allow undocumented workers and their families to obtain legal status -- guaranteeing them basic worker and human rights. But the bishops need our help.

Please email Hillary Clinton urging her to boldly speak out in support of fair and just immigration reform legislation that would grant all hard-working undocumented persons and their families' legal status.

And then email Donald Trump urging him to do the same.

Also, email and call (Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121) your two U.S. senators and House representative asking them to sponsor similar legislation in Congress.

For more information visit Farmworker Justice.

Saint John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth") wrote that "every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. "

Garcia asked that I raise the following questions on behalf of the undocumented:

Should undocumented immigrants have to live in an underground world?

Is it right to use closed borders for the purpose of exploiting cheap labor?

Why is it so acceptable to have undocumented workers perform the jobs few Americans are willing to do -- pick our fruits and vegetables, wash dishes, and work in meat slaughterhouses?

Lord Jesus, heal our nation's indifference, and inspire us to welcome these strangers as valuable members of your one human family, so that on the Day of Judgment we may gladly hear you say, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

[Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. His keynote address, "Advancing the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century," has been well received by diocesan and parish gatherings from Santa Clara, Calif. to Baltimore, Md. Magliano can be reached at tmag@zoominternet.net.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Tony Magliano's column, "Making a Difference," is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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