Labor Day should mark more than the “official” end of summer. This holiday pays tribute to the workers who create our nation’s wealth and strength. At the same time, in honoring the working man and woman — and in recalling the contributions of the labor movement in our society — we acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of human work. Work allows us to participate in God’s own work of creation and affords us the means to support our families and contribute to the common good of all.
This Labor Day finds us as a nation struggling with the difficult and important issue of immigration. Immigrants — whether they arrive through official legal channels or not — come seeking work and a better life for their families. And whether they come as skilled or unskilled workers, agricultural laborers or to join family members already working here, they come, in part, because U.S. employers need their labor and our economy, even in these difficult times, depends on them.
Agriculture relies heavily on them to harvest our crops. Our meat and poultry industry, which offer some of the lowest paid and highest risk occupations in the United States, has a workforce that is almost half immigrant. Our hospitality industry, not to mention our ever growing healthcare sector, relies extensively on foreign-born workers. Without the immigrants’ labor our economy would have huge gaps.
Our immigration laws have not kept up with this demand for labor, which is why so many jobs are filled by those who come into the country without legal sanction. And despite their lack of permanent legal status, most of the estimated 11 million undocumented in our country are working — and these laborers contribute to the common good of our nation by the work they do and the taxes they do pay.
While reasonable people may disagree on how our nation should respond, any effective response demands that we recognize that immigration is more than a “border security” issue but is essentially about our labor markets and the men and women who fill the jobs that continue to make America strong. As a son of an immigrant from Poland who, as a priest, worked most of my life with immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere, I have shared in the daily struggles and dreams of those who come to this land seeking freedom and opportunity. I have witnessed their resolve to give their children a better life. And this is why I am convinced that America, founded on the ideals of liberty and justice for all, can and must find reasonable and responsible ways to welcome them.
By helping those without legal status come out of the shadows and contribute more fully to our communities, we can, at the same time, strengthen the security of our nation and the vitality of our society. The immigrants have come because they want to live out the values we celebrate this Labor Day — hard work, providing a decent living for one’s family, contributing to the community, a life of dignity and opportunity gained through honest work. We can honor these values by moving beyond the divisiveness and partisanship that has marked the recent debate on immigration.
We need a comprehensive immigration reform — one that includes a path to earned legalization for those already working in our country, as well as one that meets future labor needs through a temporary worker program. Such a reform can help ensure that workers are not exploited and at the same time protect the rights of foreign-born and U.S. workers.
Everyone working in our country should have a safe workplace, wages and employment benefits to support their families, and the protection of labor laws, including the right to organize and have a voice. The immigration debate this Labor Day challenges us to consider again who we are as a nation, how our economy treats all workers, how we welcome the “strangers” among us. Immigration is not just a political issue, but a fundamental human and moral issue. For the immigrant workers are not faceless numbers — but human persons. They are our brothers and sisters; they are our neighbors and co-workers. Justice and prudence demand that we treat them with dignity and find a reasonable way for their contributions and presence to be recognized within the law. After all, Labor Day should honor the contributions of all the workers in this great nation.
Thomas J. Wenski is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Miami.