Two weeks ago, Pope Francis spoke of "a globalization of indifference" toward the plight of immigrants. His reference was to migrants traveling from North Africa to Italy, but his theme resonates in the United States, with its 11.5 million undocumented immigrants.
More than 4 million children, U.S. citizens by virtue of being born here, live with undocumented parents. The resulting strain on individuals, families and communities is exceedingly great, and only Congress has the power to prescribe an antidote.
Last month, the U.S. Senate voted 68-32 in favor of reform that included legalization and a long, rough path to citizenship. While not all were pleased, nobody suggested deportation as a solution.
The House of Representatives is taking its time, but a consensus is emerging that doing nothing is unacceptable and that Congress must forsake the status quo and press ahead.
One label for the status quo is "de facto amnesty," which ignores the plight of the undocumented, prolongs their exploitation as underpaid workers in certain industries, and perpetuates an environment in which false papers and Social Security numbers are necessary in order to find work.
Roughly 85 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States since 2004. Undocumented workers comprise 5.4 percent of the labor force and are essential to agriculture and other sectors. They will not go away. On average, they are younger and have a higher participation rate in the labor force. Several recent studies indicate that immigration reform would bolster Social Security and the economy.
Dithering on legalization makes little sense. The Senate plan carries a general eligibility deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, and delay presumably would push the date forward.
Some suggest piecemeal reform, with security coming first. This seems a pretext, as security would improve by bringing undocumented immigrants into a proper regulatory scheme rather than keeping them off the books. Lawmakers who insist on a piecemeal approach should address legalization first.
Last week an undocumented immigrant told me: "We want the best immigration reform, but we have to be realistic. I want legal status. I want legal papers. I want to be able to travel to my country, El Salvador."
A few days ago, a man from Mexico wrote: "We have lived in the shadows for many years. No matter if some of us have been here a little longer, we all work hard to support our families and put food on the table. We are in this together, and we want [a path to citizenship]."
Undocumented immigrants do not expect an easy path to citizenship, but most want an opportunity to step forward. The time is right to let them do so.
Complex, overly technical laws and bureaucracy have long burdened our system. Reform should simplify and streamline procedures for visa processing and legalization. It should center on efficiency and opportunity.
Immigration has long served America as an economic and societal pillar. To echo a theme from W. H. Auden, legalization and modernization would honor our ever-increasing diversity and set us on a better course for unity. Congress should act now.
Mark Alvarez is an attorney, immigration specialist for Telemundo Utah and host of "Sin Rodeos," a Spanish-language radio program.