Former Gov. Jeb Bush has elicited the outrage of the anti-immigrant crowd with his recent comment that crossing illegally into the United States to find work to support one’s family is an “act of love.” And, he is right. As the bishops of the Second Vatican Council taught 50 years ago: “Man, who is the only creature on Earth which God willed for himself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.”
Immigrants who endure the gauntlet of our southern border do not do so for a lark but selflessly to support their families. Their leaving home and loved ones behind certainly represents “a sincere gift of self.”
Indeed, surveys of migrants who have come to the United States show that the majority seek a better life for their families. In so doing, they risk life and limb, having to elude drug traffickers and other criminal elements, corrupt law-enforcement officials and environmental dangers along the way.
A significant number — up to 6,000 on the U.S. side since 2000 alone — have died in the attempt.
The decision to migrate is never taken lightly. Migrants are aware of the risks and the fact that they will be separated indefinitely from their families. They would rather remain home to support their families, but economic and political conditions force migrants to support them in another fashion, even at risk of their lives.
In fact, surveys also show that migrants who seek work would come legally if they had the opportunity. Only 5,000 permanent visas are available for low-skilled workers in our system. Temporary visa programs, such as those for agricultural and seasonal labor, are dysfunctional and limited in their reach. Unable to access these legal avenues, they nevertheless migrate to meet our demand for their labor, working in these industries without legal protection and at risk of exploitation.
To demonize irregular migrants as “lawbreakers” certainly generates heat but does not give any light to the urgent task of fixing our broken immigration system. This is not to condone the violation of the law — but as Gov. Bush suggests, these migrants are not criminals. Being in the United States without proper documents is not a criminal felony but a civil misdemeanor.
With his comment, Gov. Bush hit a nerve that runs through the immigration debate. Some would like to make all migrants criminals, as such proposals as the SAFE Act would do and programs such as Operation Streamline already do.
But the majority of the American public would prefer that these migrants pay a penalty commensurate to the offense — a fine or other fees — and be given the opportunity to regularize their status. If wise, Congress would take the latter course.
With one three-word phrase, Gov. Bush has helped humanize these migrants — they are human beings who love their families, just as Americans do. This runs counter to the rhetoric of many shrill anti-immigrant voices and reframes the debate in human terms.
Gov. Bush no doubt weighed his comments before uttering them, with full knowledge of the opposition he would encounter by some in his own party. In so doing, however, he has moved the debate forward toward a just solution to our immigration woes.
Thomas G. Wenski is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Miami.