What do you think when you hear word "immigrant?"

The following article was published in the Catholic Charities Connections newsletter on June 21, 2008. It was written by Maricella Garcia, the former director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services in Little Rock.

Most people hear the word “immigrant” and think “illegal.” This is an unfortunate connotation that doesn’t take into account the millions of immigrants who are here in the United States with permission. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is the government agency responsible for controlling immigration to the United States.

USCIS reports that in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, 1,266,264 people became legal permanent residents, 67,263 refugees and asylees were admitted to the United States, 702,589 people became naturalized U.S. citizens and 33,667,328 people came as temporary visitors to the United States, including business travelers, students and tourists. This group of more than 35 million people is often forgotten or marginalized in discussions that center only on illegal immigration.”

By using the word “immigrant” as a catchall negative phrase, we deny the importance of immigrants to our society. We are a nation of immigrants, part of the global society, and while we do not need to have open borders, we also need to recognize the importance of our American identity in defining an immigration policy. We are a country that values helping others, that is why more than 60,000 refugees and asylees applied to the United States to protect them from persecution and abuses in their home country.

We are a country that values diversity and that is why more than one million people a year from more than 72 countries become legal permanent residents. We are a country that values the exchange of ideas and knowledge, which is why more than one million people entered the U.S. on exchange visas. These are all critical stories in the larger story of immigration that never gets told: all immigration is not bad, and not all immigrants are the same.

Immigrants’ needs and wants in coming to the U.S. are diverse and cannot be lumped all together. Some come as children, having no say in their parent’s decision to uproot their life from their home country and begin a new one, in a new language, in the United States, a country they most likely know nothing about.

Others come as adults because of persecution, abuse, war, famine, natural disaster or other socio-economic driving forces that make them leave their home country in search of survival. Others still come because of family ties to the U.S.; they have a husband/wife, father/mother, brother/sister, etc. who lives here and they wish to reunite their family.

Far more often, what the office of Catholic Charities Immigration Services hears is the story of parents who came to the United States seeking a better life, not for themselves, but for their children. They are people who in their home country made less than $200 a month on average and couldn’t afford the basic necessities like running water, school supplies and food for every mouth at the table.

They are people who knew their children’s future was bleak because no matter how hard the parents worked, there were not enough resources to go around and there was little opportunity to get ahead. In looking at how the term “immigrant” has become such a negative connotation, we have to look closely at the immigration debate and at the current immigration system.

All sides can easily agree that the current immigration system does not work. It does not effectively serve our security or economic needs, and it does not efficiently process legal immigrants or stop unauthorized persons from coming into our country. Instead of turning our back on the “other” we should do as the Bible commands us in Leviticus 19:33-34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God.” We should welcome them with the same love we have for ourselves.

Immigration is not an “us and them” issue as it is too often portrayed. Nor is it a criminal issue. Primarily it is a humanitarian issue and we are losing the face of our humanity by talk of “illegals.” The next time you hear the word “immigrant,” I would ask you to think, “What does it really mean to you?”

Look to the person, not the action and try to judge each individual fairly. Here at Catholic Charities Immigration Services, “immigrant” usually means families reuniting, regularization of status for people who have waited patiently (sometimes for years), and most importantly service to those who desperately need us the most: strangers in a strange land.