Stephen Kent

The flight attendant was giving the usual safety instructions, the language as unchanging and familiar as if reading from a prayer card. She concluded with directions on using an oxygen mask for those traveling with small children. The attendant went off script and ended by saying “if you are traveling with more than one child, determine which has the most potential and apply the mask to him or her first.”

It brought chuckles. It also is a fair description of the immigration reform bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to be sent to the Senate floor this month. Legal permanent residency would be given to an unlimited number of high achievers such as scientists, educators and those with advanced degrees. But it also would eliminate visa categories that currently allow United States citizens to sponsor their siblings and married children to come to the U.S.

It is a big change. It shifts the importance of who gets permanent status from family to merit. About two-thirds of immigrants received permanent status through family connections. By some estimates, this rate would drop to 55 percent while those who obtain permanent status based on education would increase from 14 percent to almost 40 percent.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, expressed concern over cuts to the family-based immigration system, a hallmark of the nation’s immigration laws.

“We must not abandon our focus on families, which are the backbone of our society,” he said. “Family unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must remain the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration system.”

When the country still wrestles with its different concepts of what defines a family, it enters into many phases of life, including this immigration policy.

One senator would have included same-sex married couples under definitions for family reunification visas, but withdrew this amendment when it threatened passage of the bill.

For more than a decade, the U.S. bishops have urged that immigration reform should include:

• Allowing undocumented people to earn permanent residency.

• A worker program that protects foreign-born workers and safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers.

• Reducing the waiting time for the reunification of immigrant families.

• Restoring due process protections for immigrants.

• Policies addressing the root causes of migration.

Approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee is good news, but it’s only a beginning. The debate to come will resurrect the prejudice, bias and discrimination that has plagued the issue throughout the history of this country.

Some groups are anxious to pin all woes — including urban sprawl, crowded classrooms and water depletion — on immigrants.

Perhaps the solution to draining resources is filling fewer swimming pools, watering fewer golf courses and shorter time in the showers.

What can be done by those far from the halls of Congress while this is proceeding? For one thing, in all conversations, set the tone to defy prejudice.

“Remind the community that this is about real people,” said Michelle Sardone of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: