In this interview with ZENIT, Ambassador Francis Rooney discusses President George Bush's hopes for immigration reform.
Q: The U.S. government has come under strong criticism from many quarters for building a fence along some parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. Why does the government consider this to be necessary?
Rooney: President Bush is committed to the idea that America can be a lawful, economically dynamic and welcoming society. Last month in his State of the Union address, he made a bold call for comprehensive immigration reform. In October, he signed the Secure Fence Act, which will do much to ensure the safety and security of both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals who wish to legally enter the United States.
Border security is a basic responsibility of any sovereign nation. Placing a fence along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border is just one element of a multi-faceted policy to stop terrorists and criminals from entering our country, and to discourage human trafficking and narcotics smuggling.
But even more important are measures he called for to establish a more effective temporary worker program; resolve -- without animosity and without amnesty -- the status of illegal immigrants already in the U.S.; and to help immigrants assimilate into American society by offering English language training and education.
The problem of illegal immigration in America needs to be addressed by a system that is secure, orderly and fair. The comprehensive policy initiatives the president outlined in his recent State of the Union address are the best way forward.
Q: Critics of the new border restrictions argue that a border fence will force migrants to look for more dangerous ways to enter the United States. Is the government prepared to look for alternative, and more humane ways, to control its borders?
Rooney: The new border legislation will make immigration safer. With his latest proposals, President Bush is calling for an end to the illegal brand of immigration we see too often along our borders, executed under inhumane and life-threatening conditions. The president and the American people are committed to making legal immigration safe and fair for everyone.
America is increasing the number of its border patrol agents by 63%, and doubling border security funding for new infrastructure and technology; however, we remain open to those wanting to enter our country. Every year, we issue more than one million permanent residency "green cards" -- more than those issued in the rest of the world combined.
Democracies like the United States, with healthy economies and vast resources, will continue to attract individuals seeking freedom and opportunity. Those same governments must defend and exercise their right to know who is in their country and why.
Q: Has the dispute over the fence become more of a symbolic point of division, at the cost of distracting attention from more important issues?
Rooney: It's important to keep in mind that placing a fence along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border is just one element of a multifaceted policy to stop terrorists and criminals from entering the country.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, and we are proud of our great melting pot heritage. Italian immigrants were among the first to hit the shores of America starting in the late 1800s. Today more than 40 million people in the United States speak Spanish, while Chinese, Russian, German, Japanese and other languages can be heard every day in cities across our country.
America has proven to be a land of great opportunity for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who share our ideals, have an appreciation for our history, and respect our laws and the flag we fly.
Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, a top official of the Vatican's office on migrants, recently said that consideration for migrant families is a virtue with "deep roots in Christian tradition." It is also a quintessential American tradition.
Q: What can be done to regularize the status of illegal immigrants in the United States and to prevent them from abuses, particularly in the case of women and children?
Rooney: The president knows that America's immigration problem will not be solved with security measures alone. We know that there are many people on the other side of our borders who will do anything to come to America to work to build a better life, putting themselves -- and their families -- at great risk. But we can't help people we don't know are within our borders.
Comprehensive immigration reform must account for the millions of immigrants already in the country illegally. For those who have worked hard, supported their families, avoided crime and become a part of American life, the president is calling for them to come out of the shadows and under the rule of American law. The president is not advocating for an automatic path to citizenship, but supports a rational middle ground.
That calls for workers who have entered the country illegally, and those who have overstayed their visas, to step forward and pay a penalty for their illegal conduct. The president is also calling for undocumented workers to learn English, pay their taxes, pass a background check, and hold a job for a number of years before they are eligible to be considered for legalized status.
The United States is an open and generous country, one that encourages foreigners to visit, study or work within its borders. The president is simply insisting that immigrants who are seeking to make America their home follow our laws.
Q: How many Hispanic immigrants have entered the United States in the last couple of decades and what do you think their impact has been on the country?
Rooney: More than 40 million people in the United States speak Spanish, and that number is growing every day. Clearly, Hispanic immigrants have made a major impact on the United States. But America is a melting pot. In 2005, more than 175 million people visited the United States.
At the same time, more than one million foreign and exchange students -- many with their families -- studied in our 50 states. These students earned nearly half of the doctorates in mathematics, computer science and agricultural sciences awarded by American universities that year.
America has provided opportunity to immigrants, while they have contributed much to America.
Q: Do the United States and the Holy See both see immigration as a pressing priority?
Rooney: Migration will undoubtedly be one of the defining issues of our century.
President Bush knows this, and that's why he's been so outspoken on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. He told a joint session of Congress -- and the world -- that "extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America -- with laws that are fair and borders that are secure." He's working to make it a reality.
In January, Benedict XVI marked World Day for Migrants and Refugees. He said, "Migration shouldn't ever be seen only as a problem, but above all as a great resource on the path of humanity."
He also called on immigrants to respect the social values of their new countries. The United States applauds the Pope's clear and bold statements.
The comprehensive policy initiatives the president proposed honor the great contributions immigrants can make to America; they also aim to make legal immigration safe and fair for everyone.