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Digging deeper: misconceptions and immigration

misconception-fence-webMy senior year of high school, my Spanish teacher was challenging, opinionated, and I must admit, often rubbed me the wrong way. Señorita Trick encouraged us to practice speaking in Spanish on a number of topics. When it came to discussing whether or not to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, I was vocal about my support for a fence that would keep out persons I saw as “lawbreakers.” The astute teacher she was, Señorita Trick assigned me to develop an argument against the border fence in our class debate.

Resistant and admittedly angry at first, I grudgingly did the required research. The more I learned about the lives of those who face the decision to migrate, the root causes of migration, and the way we in the U.S. contribute to those causes, the more my misconceptions about the issue became exposed and began to dissipate. This shift in me continued as I traveled to El Paso the summer after senior year, decided to study Spanish in college and then returned to the border after graduation. This year I participated in a Just Matters course called “Crossing Borders.” Here I revisited and added understanding to some of those misconceptions.

Let’s take a look at a few common myths related to immigration in the United States.

Myth #1: Ancestors of European Americans endured the same process immigrants to the U.S. face today

Depending on when families immigrated to the U.S., there may or may not have been strictly enforced laws on immigration. In fact, the Immigration Policy Center in its 2008 article “De-romanticizing Our Immigrant Past” explains that federal restrictions on immigration hardly existed prior to the late 1800s. As a new nation, there was a great need for workers in the U.S., so immigration was actually encouraged. Considering modern requirements that potential immigrants have “close family ties to qualified U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or have employment offers in particular fields,” the Immigration Policy Council says that many who traveled to the U.S. prior to the 1920s would not qualify today.

Myth #2: Effects of immigration are always positive for migrants’ countries of origin

On one hand, emigration can have a positive impact on countries of origin. According to Khalid Koser in his book International Migration: A Very Short Introduction, money sent home by migrants can help support a developing economy, and emigration can reduce competition for jobs where employment is limited. Still, Koser says countries of origin feel the devastating effects of “brain drain” as the best and the brightest of their citizens leave to find work and fulfillment elsewhere. Developing nations where there is a great need for skilled healthcare workers and educators, then, are often unable to meet the basic needs of their people.

Myth #3: Immigrants “take” jobs from unemployed U.S. Americans

Jobs held by immigrants cannot necessarily be transferred to unemployed native-born persons. These jobs are often unappealing to native workers because they fall into one or more of the three D’s: difficult, dirty and dangerous. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in its compilation “Immigration: Myths and the Facts behind the Fallacies,” also explains that distinct skill sets can play a part: “… immigrants and native-born workers complement each other far more often than they compete.”

In fact, the total number of jobs available in the U.S. would decrease significantly without the nation’s immigrant population. As consumers, entrepreneurs, and inventors, immigrants create jobs and encourage business investment as local restaurants and stores respond to the needs of a growing population. The Chamber of Commerce summarizes, “The end result is more jobs for more workers.”

Myth #4: The Catholic Church supports open, unregulated borders

“No one can say that he [or she] is not responsible for the well-being of his [or her] brother or sister.”
– Pope John Paul II’s “Centesiumus Annus
The Catholic Church as an institution does not support open borders or breaking laws related to border crossing. On the contrary, the Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to regulate its borders. Still, we as a people of faith hold that human rights take precedence over states’ desires to limit international migration. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in its pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” demonstrates this priority:
“… migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected … Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.”

Numerous papal encyclicals have also spoken to the “right to work,” “right to migrate” and special consideration we owe to persons fleeing persecution or violence. As a community of believers in a historically pilgrim church, we echo the words of Pope John Paul II’s “Centesiumus Annus” that “no one can say that he [or she] is not responsible for the well-being of his [or her] brother or sister.”

(Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Tracey Horan

Sister Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence in formation. She professed first vows in 2017. She is a former intern at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. She currently ministers as education coordinator at the Kino Border Initiative/Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera where she works with an education team to coordinate and host individuals and groups for immersions to the U.S./Mexico border in order to engage participants on the current reality of migration.

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