Johnny Young is the director of the episcopal conference's Migration and Refugee Services. That organization, along with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, is hosting a National Migration Conference this July 28-31.
ZENIT spoke with Young about the conference, titled "Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice," and about the organizers' goals for the gathering.
Q: One of the goals of this conference is to "increase public awareness on migration questions." What are some of the primary misconceptions about migration that need to be eradicated?
Young: There are so many, but outlining some of them might help.
There is the problem and negative perception that all migrants, documented and undocumented, are all the same, which, of course, is not true. Both groups are deserving of respectful and dignified treatment.
In terms of the undocumented, the problems are numerous. For example, there is the myth of the undocumented not paying taxes and draining the system of resources for social service benefits of one kind or another. The empirical evidence demonstrates otherwise. They do pay taxes and are not an undue burden on social services.
In terms of taxes, they have paid billions into the Social Security system and will not collect a penny from it. They are, in effect, helping to keep the Social Security system afloat. This, of course, is in addition to what the undocumented pay in income, real estate, sales and other federal and state taxes.
Then there is the forgotten fact that the undocumented are no different than any of us in wanting to do the best for their families.
Another stereotype is that the undocumented have become associated with the Hispanic community, when in fact many ethnic groups make up the undocumented.
Most important of all is that the plight of the undocumented is part of a dilemma that has the American people in a conflicted situation of wanting it both ways, i.e. having the benefits of the labor and sweat of the undocumented, but without allowing them a pathway to citizenship for what they have contributed to our well-being and country.
This problem could, of course, be corrected through passage of a comprehensive immigration reform law. I could go on, but think that with these examples, you get my point.
Q: You have noted the timeliness of the conference, given that it falls in an election year. The immigration issue has divided the American people. How important will the issue of immigration be this November?
Young: Although some of the candidates for the presidential elections in November have tried to mask their true feeling on this issue, as November approaches, the pressure on them to come clean on this score will force the truth to come out.
This will allow a real discussion on this subject, and particularly on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. I think the American people will demand to hear both sides of the issue. The discussion will heat up, but no legislation likely will be passed until after the new president is elected and feels confident enough so that he or she can show real leadership on this issue, instead of following what some might consider to be the voice of the mob at the moment.
In the meantime, and in the lead up to the November election, citizens will have an opportunity to make their views known to the candidates. It is our hope that those attending the conference will take advantage of the time allotted to them to make their views knows to their representatives on the hill.
Q: The immigration issue in the United States is often associated primarily with the growing Hispanic population. But the speakers at the conference will give a much broader vision: a Haitian refugee, a Rwandan genocide survivor, etc. Why is there so much attention given just to Mexican immigrants? Is there a larger scope to this issue that most people don't see?
Young: I spoke to this earlier, but will say again that the undocumented cover a wide range of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the problem is now being looked at by many as strictly Hispanic. In the United States, we have undocumented from Europe, China, Africa, the Subcontinent [the region around India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka], the Caribbean and every region you could possibly name.
Although the preponderance of the undocumented are from Mexico and Latin America, the undocumented demographic is very multiethnic.
Q: The conference "aims to develop and strengthen dioceses' and parishes' capacity to welcome and provide hospitality to newcomers and their families." What are some of the obstacles to making that welcoming attitude a reality?
Young: The biggest obstacle is in overcoming ingrained and uninformed attitudes about immigrants and their place in our society. Once people know and appreciate the contributions of immigrants to the strength of America, they become more receptive and welcoming. It’s the old story of being frightened by that which one does not know.
This is especially true in the kind of hard economic times we are presently experiencing in this country, although the problem was bubbling up to the surface prior to the present economic downturn.
From a Catholic perspective, once parishioners become better informed of Catholic social teaching, one would expect that they would become more welcoming of the stranger. After all, that is part of what their faith is all about. Unfortunately, not enough of our Catholic brethren are sufficiently grounded in these teachings, which are based on biblical principles and are all intended to open the heart to the wonders of God’s love.
That is a very simple message, but one which gets lost in the emotions of the discussion. That is why we have programs such as Justice for Immigrants, a program intended to change entrenched attitudes at the grass roots level.
Q: During and after his trip to the United States, Benedict XVI made reference to the role of Hispanics in the Church in the United States. He even addressed some words in Spanish during his video message to America released prior to the trip. What do you think the Pope's messages meant for the United States? What is he inviting and encouraging from the Church in the United States regarding migration?
Young: His messages were all consistent and grounded in American history and biblical teachings. He was saying to Americans, "Don’t forget your history in how decently and kindly you welcomed and treated your immigrants, who were the foundation on which this nation was built."
He not only reminded us of those historical and biblical facts, but reminded us of our duty to be kind to them, as the nation had been in the past. He was being the good shepherd in trying to steer his flock and the nation to which it belongs in the right direction.
If that simple reminder were being followed today, this country would not be experiencing the kind of turmoil it is presently undergoing in trying to come to grips with a totally broken immigration system.
We Americans derive many, many benefits from the sweat and hard work of immigrants and accept the benefits derived from their work as God given advantages and part of the blessings bestowed on this great country. At the same time, though, we don't want to give those who have "paid dues" through their labor and hardships a pathway to citizenship. This is simply not fair or just.
Finally, most Americans acknowledge that something is not right with our immigration system, but cannot articulate in detail what are the reasons why there are 12 million undocumented in the country. They know that the system is broken, but don't know why.