Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to have the opportunity to testify today on this important topic. The United States and Mexico are, more than ever, tied together economically, socially, and culturally. We share a two-thousand mile border region which both unites and divides us; which facilitates the free flow of commerce yet also hosts an ever increasing border enforcement regime; and which shares cultural and social values but divides and separates families. Now, together, our two nations must address these fundamental contradictions and redefine how issues of migration can be addressed in a comprehensive, uniform, and just manner.
Mr. Chairman, on September 6, 2001, Mexican president Vicente Fox addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress on the issue of migration and called for the “regularization” of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. At that time, there was real opportunity for reform in U.S. immigration policy, including a legalization of the undocumented in our nation.
As we are all aware, the events of September 11, 2001, changed the landscape and political environment for achieving comprehensive immigration reform. Our nation understandably turned its attention to security concerns and to ensuring that we are able to distinguish the migrant who comes to contribute to our nation from those who seek to harm us.
We are hopeful that President Bush’s re-entry into the immigration debate on January 7, 2004, and hearings such as the one you are conducting today mark a new beginning of a debate on comprehensive immigration reform.
In order to achieve real reform, the administration and Congress must work together on a comprehensive package which would legalize undocumented migrants and their families in the U.S., provide legal means for migrants to enter our nation to work and support their families, and reform the system whereby immigrants come to the United States to reunited with close family members.
Moreover, it is our hope that the recent meeting between President Bush and President Fox in Crawford, Texas, will mark a new beginning in negotiations on a bilateral migration agreement. It is through this framework, with the support of the legislative bodies of each country, that both nations will best be able to address all elements of the migration issue—economic inequities and other root causes, joint security concerns, legal avenues for migration, workers’ rights, Social Security totalization—to name a few. We call upon both presidents to recommence these talks as soon as possible.
Mr. Chairman, in January 2003, the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops issued a historic joint pastoral letter on the issue of migration entitled Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. Among its many recommendations, it outlines the elements which the bishops of both nations believe are necessary to reform U.S. and Mexican immigration policy in a comprehensive and just manner. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I ask that the chapter of the pastoral letter addressing policy recommendations be included in the hearing record.
My testimony today will focus on many of the recommendations contained in the U.S.-Mexican bishops’ joint letter, including 1) the need to address the root causes of migration so that migrants can remain home to support themselves and their families; 2) the need to reform U.S. immigration policy so that migrants can enter in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner; and 3) the need to reevaluate our immigration enforcement policies so that the abuse, exploitation, and death of migrants are eliminated at the same time legitimate national security concerns are addressed.
Specifically, my testimony recommends that Congress—
- Enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation which provides a legalization program (path to permanent residency) for undocumented workers in our nation; reforms the employment-based immigration system so that low-skilled workers can enter and work in a safe, legal, orderly, and humane manner; and reduces waiting times in the family preference system for families to be reunited;
- Devise an aid package for Mexico which focuses on sustainable economic development, especially in sending communities, and reevaluate the impact of NAFTA on farmers and other low-skilled sectors of the Mexican economy;
- Enact immediately the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (S. 1645, H.R. 3142) and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) and Student Adjustment Act (S. 1545 HR 1684);
- Reexamine immigration enforcement policy on the U.S.-Mexican border to ensure that migrant abuse and deaths are prevented; and
- Include the necessary elements in any legislation to efficiently implement immigration policy, including taking actions to eliminate the enormous backlogs in the adjudication of immigration benefit petitions and applications.
I. Catholic Social Teaching and Migration
The Catholic Church is an immigrant church. More than one-third of Catholics in the United States are of Hispanic origin. The Church in the United States is also made up of more than 58 ethnic groups from throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, the Near East, and Latin America.
The Church’s work in assisting migrants stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image. In the Old Testament, God calls upon his people to care for the alien because of their own alien experience: “So, you, too, must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). In the New Testament, the image of the migrant is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his own life and work, Jesus identified himself with newcomers and with other marginalized persons in a special way: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt. 25:35) Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher without a home of his own as well as a refugee fleeing the terror of Herod.
In modern times, popes over the last 100 years have developed the Church teaching on migration. Pope Pius XII reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to caring for pilgrims, aliens, exiles, and migrants of every kind, affirming that all peoples have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, the right to migrate.i Pope John Paul II states that there is a need to balance the rights of nations to control their borders with basic human rights, including the right to work: “Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all.”ii In his pastoral statement, Ecclesia in America, John Paul II reaffirms the rights of migrants and their families and the need for respecting human dignity, “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”iii
In our recent joint pastoral letter, the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops further define Church teaching on migration, calling for nations to work toward a “globalization of solidarity:” “It is now time to harmonize policies on the movement of people, particularly in a way that respects the human dignity of the migrant and recognizes the social consequences of globalization.”iv
The U.S. and Mexican bishops also point out why they speak on the migration issue. As pastors, we witness the consequences of a failed immigration system every day in the eyes of migrants who come to our parish doors in search for assistance. We are shepherds to communities, both along the border and in the interior of the nation, which are impacted by immigration. Most tragically, we witness the loss of life at points along our southern border when migrants, desperate to find employment to support themselves and their families, perish in the desert.
For these reasons, the Catholic Church holds a strong interest in the welfare of immigrants and how our nation welcomes newcomers from all lands. The current immigration system, which can lead to family separation, suffering, and even death, is morally unacceptable and must be reformed.
II. The Immigration Debate and the Administration proposal
The U.S. Catholic bishops welcome President Bush’s decision to propose changes in U.S. immigration policy. Since his January 7, 2004, announcement, the debate on this important issue has received national attention and more serious consideration by members of Congress. We are hopeful that the national debate will focus upon the many contributions that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make to our country and not scapegoat newcomers for unrelated economic or social challenges we face as a nation. History informs us that our nation has been built, in large measure, by the hard work of immigrant communities. We must remember that, except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants to this great land.
President Bush’s January 7, 2004, announcement contained many statements and outlined many goals with which we agree and support. It is significant, for example, that the President recognizes that the U.S. immigration system is broken and is in need of reform and that immigrants contribute to our nation in many areas. It is even more significant that the President proposes to provide legal status to undocumented persons in the United States who work and contribute to this nation.
However, we have some concerns about the type and scope of the administration proposal. In our pastoral letter, the U.S. and Mexican bishops outline immigration reform which is comprehensive in nature and examines all aspects of the U.S. immigration system. This would include employment-based immigration, family-based immigration, and opportunities for permanent residency for the undocumented currently living in the United States. The administration proposal only addresses the employment-based aspects of the system and does so in an inadequate fashion.
Perhaps the most troubling omission of the administration proposal is the absence of any path to residency for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, outside normal immigration channels. As I will outline in my testimony, the U.S. bishops believe that a path to residency is critical to ensure that long-term residents and their families can “come out of the shadows” and become full members of their communities. It also would help stabilize the low-skilled labor force in this nation.
We support the administration’s stated intention to increase the number of permanent residency visas for low-skilled workers, of which there are only 5,000 available annually. Because of the low number of visas available and because eligibility for these visas would be limited, we do not believe that this initiative is a substitute for a legalization program which allows workers to “earn” residency for themselves and their families.
A second omission in the administration proposal is the absence of any proposed reforms in the family-based immigration system. Because of per-country limits, preference category limits, and limits on the total number of visas available each year, waiting times for family reunification can extend for years. For example, a Mexican permanent resident who petitions today for his or her immediate family members must wait at least eight years to reunite with them. This is unacceptable. Any comprehensive solution to the immigration crisis must understand that migrants come to the United States to join their family members as well as to find employment.
Finally, the temporary worker program proposed by the administration does not contain all the elements necessary to protect the rights of workers, both foreign and domestic. As I will explain in greater detail, a new model must be created which avoids the abuses of past “guestworker” programs. This new model would need to include, among other elements, enforceable worker protections, wages and benefits which do not adversely impact U.S. workers, and a path to residency for participants in the program.
Despite these shortcomings in the administration plan, we hope to work with the administration and members of Congress in the months ahead to enact comprehensive reforms to U.S. immigration policy. A comprehensive approach would provide legal avenues for migrants to migrate and prepare our nation for the migration flows of the twenty-first century.
III. Policy Recommendations
In our pastoral letter, the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops write that…”the realities of migration between both nations require comprehensive policy responses implemented in unison by both countries. The current relationship is weakened by inconsistent and divergent policies that are not coordinated and, in many cases, address only the symptoms of migration and not its root causes.”v
It is critical that the Congress and the administration look at the immigration issue with Mexico as part and parcel of the entire bilateral relationship, including trade and economic considerations. Addressing the immigration systems of both nations, for example, will not control the forces which compel migrants to come to the United States.
Without a systematic approach which examines why people migrate, the U.S. and Mexican governments will not be able to address the underlying causes of migration. It is clear that Mexican workers continue to come to this nation regardless of enforcement strategies pursued by both governments. What attracts them is employment which either cannot be found in their own communities or better opportunities because of underemployment in Mexico, in which jobs do not pay enough or are not full time.
Specifically, we recommend that Congress consider the development of an economic package which targets sectors of the Mexican economy which employ low-skilled workers, particularly agriculture. In addition, as we assess the ten year impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), we ask that you examine in particular the impact of the agreement on low-skilled labor and migration and consider ways to mitigate any adverse effects on economic sectors which are labor-intensive.
In an ideal world for which we must all strive, migrants should have the opportunity to remain in their homelands and support themselves and their families. In this regard, we renew our call to both the U.S. and Mexican governments to resume bilateral migration negotiations so that all issues which impact migration to the United States are addressed.
A. Legalization (permanent residency) of the Undocumented
With regard to immigration policy reform, it is vital that Congress and the administration address legalization, or a path to permanent residency for the undocumented currently in the United States; employment-based immigration through a new temporary worker model; and family-based immigration reform. Without addressing reform in each leg of the “three-legged stool,” any proposal will eventually fail.
A main feature of any comprehensive immigration reform measure should be a legalization program which allows undocumented immigrants of all nationalities in the United States the opportunity to obtain permanent residency, either because of contributions already made or through a prospective work requirement. Such a feature would provide benefits to both countries and would help migrants and their families to “come out of the shadows” and become members of the community. Legalization would provide many benefits, as follows:
- Legalization would keep families together and improve the well-being of U.S.-citizen children. Legalization would help stabilize immigrant families and would protect U.S.-citizen children in “mixed” status families. A 1999 study by the Urban Institute found that 85 percent of immigrant families were of “mixed” status, that is, families in which “one or more of the parents is a non-citizen and one or more children is a citizen.” Looked at from a different angle, 9 percent of U.S. families with children nationwide were of mixed status. The figure rises to 14 percent in New York and over 25 percent in California.vi
- Legalization would recognize and maintain the economic contributions of the undocumented. Undocumented workers are an integral part of many industries across the country, including agriculture, service, construction, meatpacking, and poultry processing. For example, undocumented workers make up more than 50 percent of the labor force in agriculture. Of the roughly five to six million undocumented workers in the U.S. labor force, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that more than 1 million are in manufacturing, 600,000 in construction, 700,000 in restaurants, and 1 to 1.4 million in agriculture.vii In addition, undocumented workers contribute billions to the tax and Social Security systems.
- Legalization would improve wages and working conditions for all workers. By legalizing the labor force in a way which allows immigrants to become permanent residents, wages and working conditions would improve for all workers. According to a North American Integration and Development Center study, a new legalization program would increase the wages of immigrant workers by 15 percent, similar to the effect after passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.viii Legalization also would allow workers to organize and assert their rights, leading to better working conditions and wages for all workers.
- Legalization would promote development and stability in Mexico and Central America. Legalization would ensure that immigrants in the United States, many of whom have lived here for years and do not intend to return to their homeland, are not deported and add to the instability in sending nations. It also would ensure that remittances, which now amounts to $10 billion a year in Mexico, continue to assist sending communities.
- Legalization would help bring U.S. immigration policy in line with U.S. economic policy. The United States and Mexico are more integrated than ever. U.S. immigration policy has yet to adjust to the fact that U.S. economic policies such as NAFTA have facilitated rapid interdependence between Mexico and the United States. As economic policies are integrated, so, too, must bilateral migration policies.
Despite the dire warnings of opponents of a legalization path for undocumented workers, evidence suggests that legalization would yield benefits at many levels by preserving family unity, securing the economic contributions of migrants, and raising the wages and working conditions of all workers. It would also ensure the participation of all undocumented workers because of the opportunity for residency. The administration proposal, which leaves out this component, does not provide an incentive for full participation.
Any legalization program which leads to permanent residency through prospective work requirements must be achievable and independently verifiable. To be achievable, a worker
must be able to realistically work the number of days per year necessary and must be able to “earn” residency over a reasonable amount of years. To be independently verifiable, the program must involve Qualified Designated Entities (QDEs) which can independently attest that the worker has completed the necessary requirements.
B. Employment-Based Immigration
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of immigration policy reform is the creation of a worker program which protects the basic rights of all workers, both foreign and domestic. The history of “guestworker” programs in the United States has not been a proud one. Indeed, the Bracero program, the largest U.S. experiment with temporary laborers from abroad, ended abruptly in 1964 because of abuses in the program. The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been skeptical of large-scale “guestworker” programs. Nevertheless, the status quo, which features a large underclass of undocumented workers unprotected by the law, is unacceptable.
In this regard, the U.S. and Mexican bishops have proposed a new model for a worker program which includes several elements. Each of these elements, properly implemented, would, in our view, help protect the rights of foreign and U.S. workers and ensure that legal avenues are provided for future migrants so that they can enter the country in a safe, legal, and humane manner.
- Wage and Benefit Levels. Any worker program must feature wage levels and benefits given domestic workers in an industry. Overtime pay should be available. Benefits such as worker’s compensation, social security, housing, and health-care should be made available.
- Worker Protections and Job Portability. Workers should enjoy the same protections of U.S. labor law as U.S. workers, regardless of industry, including a right to redress grievances in federal court and a transparent arbitration system; safe and sanitary working conditions; and expressed terms of employment. Workers should be able to move to other employment within an industry and not be tied to one employer. Work accrued toward permanent residency should not be affected by changing jobs or employers.
- Family Unity. Workers should be able to be joined by spouse and children in the United States during the length of the worker’s visa. Either spouse should be eligible for work authorization, regardless of whether they work in the program. Spouse and children should be able to become eligible for permanent residency at the same time as the worker in the program.
- Labor-Market Test. A mechanism should be included to ascertain whether U.S. workers within an area are adversely impacted by the hiring of workers from abroad. Employers should be required to advertise job openings to the maximum extent practicable and make good-faith efforts to recruit U.S. workers for a sufficient amount of time.
- Mobility. Workers and their families should be able to travel throughout the United States, travel back and forth from the United States to their country of origin, as well as travel from work site to work site, regardless of location, for the duration of their visa. Visas should be renewable as long as workers meet the requirements of the program, and applicable waivers to bars to admission should apply.
- Enforcement Mechanisms. Resources should be appropriated to ensure proper enforcement of worker protections in the program. Workers should be given the right to sue in federal court for violation of rights.
- Path to Residency. Workers should have the option of working to earn permanent residency over time, similar to an earned legalization program, as outlined in my testimony.
In our view, any new temporary worker program must contain these elements in order avoid the abuses of past such programs and to ensure that worker’s rights are protected. In addition, it should be enacted in conjunction with a legalization program for the undocumented so that groups of workers are not pitted against each other. A just worker program also will mitigate the amount and effects of undocumented migration, which can lead to the abuse, exploitation, or even death of migrants.
C. Family-Based Immigration
Family reunification, upon which much of the U.S. immigration system has been based for the past 40 years, must remain the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy. Immigrant families contribute to our nation and help form new generations of Americans. Even while many migrants come to the United States to find employment, many come as families.
The U.S. family-based immigration system, which helps keep families together, is in urgent need of reform. The current visa quota system, last revised by Congress in 1990, established statutory ceilings for family immigration that are now inadequate to meet the needs of immigrant families wishing to reunite in a timely manner. The result has been waiting times of five years or more—and more than eight years for Mexican permanent residents—for spouses to reunite with each other and for parents to reunite with minor children. The waiting times for adult siblings to reunite can be twenty years or longer.ix
Such lengthy waiting times are unacceptable and actually provide unintentional incentive for some migrants to come to the United States illegally. Substantial changes must be made to the U.S. family-based immigration system so that it will meet the goal of facilitating, rather than hindering, family unity. Such changes can be made in several ways, but they should not alter the basic categories in the family preference system.
While there are a variety of ways reforms could be made, I call your attention to two suggestions that have recently appeared in legislation that is currently before you:
- Raising current world-wide numerical limitations. Significantly raising the current world-wide numerical limitations on immigrant visas, as well as raising the ceiling on various family visa categories could dramatically reduce the current family backlog. Currently, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) sets an annual minimum family-sponsored preference limit of 226,000. In addition, the per-country limit for preference immigrants is set at seven percent of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based preference limits. These limitations result in lengthy waits for family members abroad awaiting visas to immigrate to the United States. Raising these numbers significantly would reduce these waits.
- Changing the treatment of “immediate relatives.” The immediate relative category, which currently includes only the children, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens is not subject to the family preference numerical limitations. However, the number of immediate relative visas granted is subtracted from the overall family immigration cap. Reducing the family backlog can be achieved by: 1) not counting immediate relatives of U.S. citizens against the family immigration cap and 2) placing the immediate relatives of lawful permanent residents into the same category as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. This would help free up visas for other categories.
The U.S. family-based immigration system is in need of one or both of the above changes. However, these changes alone are not sufficient to create an immigration policy which protects the family. In addition, we must revise stringent income requirements (“public charge”) which prevent family members from joining their families and we must repeal bars to admissibility for unlawful presence, which can separate families for up to ten years.
D. Border Enforcement Regime
Since the advent of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994, the United States has spent more than $20 billion dollars on Border Patrol agents, reinforced fencing, and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border. This “border blockade” strategy has failed. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, over roughly the same time period the number of undocumented persons from Mexico who have entered the United States has risen from 300,000 to 500,000 annually.x Tragically, because of the blockade of more traditional routes of migration, more than 2,000 migrants have died in remote regions of the American Southwest since 1998.
The recent announcement by Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson of the Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABC) is troubling. The $10 million initiative, which will feature an increase in Border Patrol agents and technological equipment in Douglas, Arizona, and other parts along the Arizona border, is designed to close off the Arizona border from migrants. It also will feature, for the first time, the use of unmanned drones to monitor the border regions. We are fearful that this initiative will not halt the flow of undocumented migrants but will lead them to take even more dangerous routes into the interior and/or rely more heavily on unscrupulous smuggling operations.
Mr. Chairman, the border “blockade” strategy pursued by our government should be revisited. It has given rise to sophisticated smuggling networks, in which migrants pay exorbitant fees to smugglers to transport them across the border. The much publicized deaths of 19 migrants in Victoria, Texas, in May, 2003, highlights the brutal nature of these networks. It is evident that the basic human need to survive will continue to force migrants to attempt to run the gauntlet of our southern border, despite the money and resources applied by our government to prevent it.
We are hopeful that comprehensive immigration policy reform which emphasizes legal avenues for migration will mitigate the perceived need for a blockade enforcement policy. Such reform could alleviate the pressure on border enforcement by undermining human smuggling operations and reducing the flow of undocumented migrants across the border. It also could help create a more stable atmosphere for the implementation of enforcement reforms, such as biometric visas and passports, which will help better identify those who come to harm us.
E. Passage of the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 and the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2003
While we urge the committee and Congress to place comprehensive immigration reform as a top priority, there are two measures which enjoy bipartisan support which can be enacted in the near future.
The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (S. 1645, H.R. 3142) “AgJobs” represents a bipartisan initiative which would help protect both a vital industry and a labor force which is vulnerable to exploitation. The measure, which represents a negotiated agreement between the agricultural employers and the United Farm Workers, would both stabilize the labor force in this important industry and ensure that employers have access to a work-authorized supply of labor, if necessary.
Currently, more than fifty percent of the agricultural labor force is undocumented and is subject to abuse and exploitation. S. 1645/H.R. 3142 would provide a path to permanent residency for many of these undocumented farm workers in the United States. This would allow these workers to earn permanent status, thus stabilizing their families and allowing them to “come out of the shadows.” It also would allow employers to hire such workers without fear of penalty, thus providing them with a legal and stable supply of workers. In addition, it would place in statute many worker protections for farm workers, including a three-fourth work guarantee (ensuring work during three-fourth of a season) and expressed terms of employment.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (S. 15 45) in the U.S. Senate and the Student Adjustment Act (HR 1684) in the House of Representatives represent a bipartisan initiative which would allow some undocumented students to be eligible for in-state tuition and give them an opportunity to become permanent legal residents. Having entered the United States as very young children, often through no fault of their own, these students have otherwise contributed to their schools and communities. Many have lived in the United States for years.
We urge Congress to enact both of these important pieces of legislation before the end of the 108th Congress.
IV. Implementation of Immigration Policy Reform
It is important to understand that the manner in which comprehensive immigration reform is implemented is vital to its success. A public-private partnership is necessary so that immigrant communities are aware of the facts of the application process (thus eliminating the involvement of “notarios”) and are able to receive assistance in accessing the program. We recommend the inclusion of the following elements in any legislation to ensure that a program is implemented appropriately:
- Confidentiality. Applicants for both the legalization and temporary worker program should be extended confidentiality and not be subject to arrest and deportation if they fail to qualify for the program. This would ensure maximum participation in the program and that those who do qualify are not discouraged or intimidated from applying.
- Qualified Designated Entities. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)-accredited Qualified designated entities (QDEs) should be created to assist in implementation of both programs.
- Adequate Funding. Adequate Funding should be appropriated in order to ensure the full and complete implementation of the program.
- Reasonable Implementation Period. Sufficient time should be given between enactment and implementation so that regulations, procedures, and infrastructure are in place. Deportations of prospective applicants should be suspended between these two dates.
- Creation of a Separate Entity. A separate entity, similar to the asylum corps, should be created within the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to implement the legislation; such an entity should be adequately funded through appropriations.
- Derivative Benefits. Immediate family members should receive the same immigration benefits under legalization/temporary worker program as the worker.
- Generous Evidentiary Standards. For purposes of verifying an alien’s eligibility for legalization, evidentiary standards should be based upon “preponderance of the evidence” and should include a wide range of proof, including attestation.
- One-Step Legalization. A one-step legalization program would verify eligibility and security and background checks in one process up front and not in a two-step process, i.e. upon conditional status and then permanent status.
- Operational Terms should be defined: Operational terms in the bill, such as “continuous residence,” “brief, casual, and innocent,” and “known to the government,” should be defined in the legislation to avoid later confusion.
- Broad humanitarian waiver. A broad waiver of bars to admissibility for legalized aliens, such as unlawful presence, fraud, or other minor offenses, should be included in the legislation.
The inclusion of these elements in any legislation would facilitate the implementation of any program.
In addition, the Congress and the administration should take steps to reduce the immigration adjudication backlogs which now exist so that immigrants receive benefits in a timely way and that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is able to implement any new program.
Currently, waiting times in many adjudication categories are too long. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, processing for naturalization applications has grown from 10 months in September, 2002, to 13 months in August, 2003, and is significantly longer than 13 months in many districts. The backlog for adjustment of status applications has reached an all-time high of 1.2 million.xi
Moreover, the government has just increased fee applications by approximately $55 per application, leaving these benefits financially out of reach of many applicants.xii At the same time, USCIS reduced its funding request for directly appropriated funds by $95 million for FY 2005.xiii
Mr. Chairman, reduction in the current backlogs in naturalization and adjustment of status applications should be part of our nation’s efforts to reform our immigration system. We recommend that Congress evaluate the budget of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and provide more directly appropriated funding for infrastructure and backlog reduction. Without more efficiency in the system, a new comprehensive reform program of any type may be unworkable, absent the creation of a new entity to implement it.
Mr. Chairman, we appreciate the opportunity to testify today on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, especially as it relates to the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship. More than ever, the United States and Mexico are interdependent economically, socially, and culturally. It is necessary that the United States pay particular attention to the relationship with our neighbors to the south.
Mr. Chairman, we urge you and the committee to consider our recommendations as you consider the myriad issues in this vital area. We also ask you to join us to urge the Bush administration and that of President Vicente Fox of Mexico to renew in earnest bilateral migration talks.
We are hopeful that, as our public officials debate this issue, that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are not made scapegoats for the challenges we face as a nation. Rhetoric which attacks the human rights and dignity of the migrant are not becoming of a nation of immigrants. Neither are xenophobic and anti-immigrant attitudes, which only serve to lessen us as a nation.
Mr. Chairman, the U.S. Catholic bishops strongly believe that comprehensive immigration reform should be a top priority for Congress and the Administration. We look forward to working with you and the administration in the days and months ahead to fashion an immigration system which upholds the valuable contributions of immigrants and reaffirms the United States as a nation of immigrants.
Thank you for your consideration.