Sen. Orrin Hatch was right to support immigration reform legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, legislation now being considered by the U.S. Senate. However, several amendments he plans to offer on the Senate floor could wipe away the chance for millions of immigrants to avail themselves of the bill's path to citizenship.
The amendments, which could be considered this week, would place additional financial burdens on persons attempting to qualify for a path to citizenship. One would disqualify them for a tax subsidy to purchase health care until they earn citizenship, not permanent residency, as in current law.
Another one, which requires that immigrants pay back taxes, would keep them from qualifying for legal status altogether.
A large majority of immigrants are poor, as they work in low-wage jobs and often do not make minimum wage or receive health care coverage. They work hard for the money they do earn and use it to support their families and give their children a better life. They perform difficult work that benefits our state and nation, such as picking fruits and vegetables, cleaning our houses and taking care of our children.
It sounds reasonable to deny them certain benefits or require them to pay back taxes, as they have lived in the United States outside of the law. Why should they receive certain benefits when they were working illegally in the first place?
But we have been willing for years, as a state and nation, to accept their toil and, yes, their taxes many undocumented do pay federal and state income and sales taxes without providing them federal benefits or the protection of the law. They have paid billions into the Social Security Trust Fund as much as $14 billion per year as well as billions in income and sales taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Is it not fair to allow them to get back some of what they put in?
Moreover, the path to citizenship is expensive, requiring fines and processing costs of $4,000 per person per family. To remain eligible, applicants must remain at or above the poverty line. Requiring immigrants to pay back taxes and health care only adds to this financial burden, likely forcing many to abandon the path to citizenship and the American dream.
Most burdensome is the requirement to pay back taxes, which many have paid but are unable to prove, and which include payroll taxes. It should be noted that unscrupulous employers, who in some cases failed to comply with reporting requirements, would not be required to pay back payroll taxes on their undocumented employees.
The larger issue here, however, is the overall purpose of the immigration reform bill. If the goal is to solve the problem of irregular migration and illegal presence, then erecting barriers which prevent persons from coming out of the shadows defeats that purpose.
As a recent state poll has found, the majority of Utah citizens support the Senate bill and its path to citizenship, one that is arduous but fair. They see no reason to make it less accessible.
Hatch has shown great leadership and courage in the immigration debate and has represented Utah well. I am proud to know him and call him my senator. It is with respect that I ask him to refrain from offering these amendments.
Utah and America should embrace a path to citizenship that gives persons, regardless of their income, the opportunity to work hard and achieve the American dream.
John C. Wester is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.