Advancing Immigrant Integration,
Well-Being and Empowerment

Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D.
Bishop of Brooklyn
Address delivered at
The National Immigrant Integration Conference
December 13, 2015 | New York

Advancing Immigrant Integration, Well-Being and Empowerment

Allow me first to thank the co-organizers of this important event – the National Partnership for New Americans and the New York Immigration Coalition – for bringing us together and for their important work on these issues over so many years.  Thanks as well to the event’s executive committee, to its sponsors and to the many agencies here today that are committed to advancing opportunity, equality and justice for immigrants. I am very pleased to join you and to welcome you to Brooklyn and Queens.

Your work is personally meaningful to me. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, living with my parents and immigrant grandparents, and attended a parish staffed mostly by Irish-Americans. In my grade school, we were the “Italians” and the Irish-American children were the “Americani.” My school’s English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) program consisted of me sitting next to a newly arrived Italian student and translating the teacher’s lessons for several months until he learned English. We have come a long way since those days, although we have lots of work to do.

Needless to say, you have come to the right place for a conference on advancing opportunity, equality and justice for immigrants.  Immigrants constitute 37 percent of the population of Brooklyn and 48 percent of the population of Queens. Well over one-half of the residents of the two boroughs are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Prior to the annual awards ceremony for our Catholic Migration Office in Brooklyn, 30 immigrant groups select a member to be honored as a “shining star” based on his or her leadership and contributions to the community. Our parishes celebrate mass in more than 30 languages each week, with some celebrating in five languages. For good reason, we refer to ourselves as the Diocese of Immigrants.

As our experience here makes abundantly clear, immigrants have formed and they continually renew our communities and nation. Over two centuries, our nation has learned many lessons about how to advance opportunity, equality and justice for immigrants, but our public dialogue demonstrates that we have unlearned many of these lessons as well. Let me devote this time to sharing a few reflections on immigration reform, the role faith-based institutions in immigrant integration, and how we might conceptualize integration.

Immigration Reform

The last decade has witnessed the repeated failure to pass broad immigration reform legislation. While the US immigration enforcement system has grown roughly 20-fold over the last 25 years, Congress has unconscionably neglected to safeguard US families and strengthen the US economy by reforming our legal immigration laws, and broad reform does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. While it is not the ultimate goal of our work, legalization is certainly an important step on the path to full participation and membership in our society. Thus, our first priority should be to redouble our efforts for immigration reform.

I served as the director of Migration and Refugee Services at the  US Catholic Conference when the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) became law and during the program’s implementation. I know from experience that immigration reform will not be easy or happen quickly. This is not the nature of comprehensive legislation, particularly not immigration legislation which often elicits concerns related to national membership, security and identity. That said, we badly need reform that strengthens the system of family-based immigration, reduces family-based immigration backlogs, provides more legal avenues for admission for both lower-credentialed and highly-skilled workers, and effectively enforces the law. To be truly comprehensive, immigration reform must also address problems like the US immigrant detention system, the dramatic increase in non-court removals, border militarization policies, and aspects of our refugee and asylum systems.

In rethinking legalization, we should revisit proposals to move forward the “registry” date. The registry program offers lawful permanent residence (LPR) to long-term, continuous residents who are not removable on select grounds and are not ineligible for citizenship. IRCA advanced the “registry” cut-off date from June 30, 1948 to January 1, 1972. Thus, at present, an unauthorized person would need to have entered the United States more than 43 years ago to qualify. According to the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS), advancing the registry date to January 1, 1998 would allow 3.5 million US residents to become LPRs, and moving ahead the date by one year each year thereafter would prevent the re-emergence of a long-term unauthorized population. In my view, persons without status who also meet the other criteria for registry should be eligible to secure legal status after seven years in the country.

As IRCA illustrated, legalization provides a substantial boost to the wages, education and skill acquisition by the newly legalized. Similarly, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) beneficiaries experienced increased employment opportunities; upward job mobility; greater access to credit cards, bank accounts and driver’s licenses; and more robust civic incorporation. Based on the experience of these programs, there is every reason to think that a legalization program – some combination of an earned legalization and a registry program – would substantially benefit US families, local communities, and the nation as a whole.

Second, you well know the importance of state and local measures to regularize the lives of the unauthorized persons and other immigrants. There is a substantial difference between living in constant fear of deportation and being treated as a full member of your local community.

Third, a recent study by CMS and subsequent work by the New York City Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs suggests that a substantial percentage of the unauthorized may already be eligible for legal status, but lacks the knowledge, wherewithal, or resources to pursue it. There is no reason why attorneys, accredited representatives and community groups should not screen the unauthorized for status now. Such an initiative could place up to two million persons on a path to citizenship, without Congress or the courts. There is also a great need for naturalization services for the 8.6 million naturalization-eligible US residents.

Fourth, the massive influx of children from Central America over the last three years has underscored the need to address the factors that force persons to migrate. Violence and intense poverty are the structural causes for most of the recent child migration. However, these children have also come to join parents and other family members in the United States. Thus, immigration reform will help to alleviate the pain of these divided families as well.

Fifth, we should remember to use all of the legislative and administrative opportunities available to us – legalization, DACA, municipal ID cards, and others – to increase community capacity, coordination and infrastructure on a permanent basis. In 1988, we created the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) in order to consolidate the gains of IRCA and to foster an improved and expanded community-based, immigrant legal services infrastructure. Several of the state and local coalitions sponsoring this event also arose out of IRCA. Our experiment in capacity building worked then and it can work again, giving us a strong network of institutions devoted into perpetuity to immigrant well-being, empowerment and justice.

The Role of Faith-Based Institutions (FBOs) in Immigrant Integration

In recent years, scholars have raised concerns over whether institutions that helped to integrate earlier generations of immigrants – like labor unions, manufacturing firms, school systems, religious institutions, and political parties – continue to serve as effective mediating institutions for immigrants. Over the last three years, CMS has convened a group of leaders of diverse Catholic and other faith-based institutions to study and assess the response of these institutions to immigrants. The overarching goal of this initiative has been to strengthen and expand the work of faith-based institutions on integration.

This initiative has documented successful programs and practices in hospitals, elementary schools, universities, parishes, charities, organizing agencies, and legal service programs. It has also led us to revisit institutions that successfully served earlier generations of immigrants. For example, in the early 1930’s, Catholic dioceses, religious communities, and universities began to establish labor schools for low-wage workers, many of them led by “labor” priests. These schools sought to prepare workers to participate in labor unions, and instructed them on parliamentary procedures, public speaking, economics and labor law. They also sought to instill in them a sense of their work as a vocation. By the 1940’s, faith-based institutions sponsored more than 150 labor schools. This work continued into the 1970’s.

Over the last few years, Fr. Clete Kiley of UNITE HERE has led an initiative to build a new cadre of labor priests in response to the needs of immigrants and others in low-paying, dangerous jobs, with high rates of labor standards violations. You cannot advance justice for immigrants without prioritizing their experience in the workplace.

Conceptualizing Integration

What do we mean by integration? Integration entails socio-economic attainment, political participation, a sense of belonging, and interaction with the host society. But these standard metrics of integration must be located within a larger social vision.  What are the components of this vision?

First, the integration process must privilege immigrant agency. Institutions can facilitate integration, but immigrants integrate, not institutions. In addition, our institutions cannot effectively contribute to integration if they lose sight of this fact and if they do not model openness and inclusiveness themselves.

Second, immigrants integrate best from a position of success, security, belonging, and self-esteem. They integrate if they feel welcomed, not in the sense that visitors feel welcomed to somebody else’s home, but in the sense of a homecoming. Thus, integration requires that we promote the leadership and gifts of immigrants, and we recognize that our communities and institutions belong to all of us.

Third, integration seeks to create the conditions that allow all of us to flourish, including the most recent arrivals and those without immigration status. Our nation belongs as much to the immigrants of today, as it does to those who have arrived since the Mayflower. As a corollary, integration seeks human flourishing in all of its social, economic, political and spiritual dimensions.

Fourth, culture, which is “learned” through a process of socialization, serves as the repository of people’s deepest values and aspirations. It plays a central role in our vision of integration. Many people view immigrants from different cultures with anxiety and tension. They do not see a melting pot, a savory stew, or a mosaic, but rather a recipe for conflict and displacement. We view integration as part of a broader process of building communion. We seek unity between peoples based on the shared values that are embedded in their diverse cultures. We seek to draw from the gifts, strengths and contributions of immigrant and native cultures to create new and better communities. We seek unity based on values, not uniformity or assimilation into a dominant culture.

Too many of our politicians, pundits and fellow citizens view migration and treat immigrants as a problem. Yet in New York and elsewhere, immigrants have been a gift and a constant source of civic renewal. As Pope Francis put it in his 2013 Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees:

[M]igrants and refugees…are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community. Migration can offer possibilities for a new evangelization, open vistas for the growth of a new humanity foreshadowed in the paschal mystery: a humanity for which every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland is a foreign country.

That is the vision. Immigrants are a gift, not a burden or a threat. Because they are us and we are them, immigrant integration serves the common good and strengthens our communities and nation.

Again, thank you for your work and for the invitation to be with you today, and best wishes for the remainder of your gathering.

Author Names

Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D.

Date of Publication December 13, 2015


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