February 3, 2006

Commentary:

Criminalizing religious, social service workers is wrong

By Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Many members of the House of Representatives would have you believe that church workers and humanitarian organizations are criminals.

On Dec. 16, 2005, the House passed a border-security bill that could have dire consequences for church personnel and social service agencies that provide humanitarian aide to undocumented residents.

The bill makes “soliciting, aiding, abetting, counseling, commanding and procuring” undocumented workers an aggravated felony. The legislation, through its broad wording, places churches and agencies providing humanitarian aidon par with human smugglers. The bill calls for sentences of three to 30 years.

Across the nation, many human rights organizations and leaders of faith-based organizations have spoken out against the immigration bill, which they say goes against their work and their belief in social justice.

Recently, The New York Times reported that Bishop Gerald R. Barnes wrote to Congress on behalf of the Conference of Catholic Bishops arguing that the law “would place parish, diocesan and social service program staff at risk of criminal prosecution simply for performing their jobs.”

The government is already using heavy-handed tactics against humanitarian groups.

Last July, Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz were arrested in Arizona and charged with two felonies under federal law for driving three undocumented migrants in distress to receive medical care. One charge was transporting undocumented immigrants; the other conspiring to do so. The charges carry a maximum of 15 years prison time. Strauss and Sellz volunteer with No More Deaths, a network of groups and individuals who work to prevent deaths of undocumented migrants crossing the brutal Arizona desert.

Amnesty International has raised concerns over the charges against the two volunteers. It recognizes the right of a nation to protect its borders but emphasizes that nations also have an obligation to ensure human rights.

It is precisely these two imperatives that we must balance: protecting ourselves while ensuring human rights. We must not allow politicians to use fear in order to convince us that we no longer believe in human rights.

Over the years, we have seen that tighter laws on immigration have not lessened the movement of people across the border. They have simply made that movement more risky and helped to create a more violent and profitable smuggling industry that preys on immigrants. This legislation has the potential to make smuggling even more profitable and the exploitation of would-be immigrants even worse.

The last thing our government should be doing is prosecuting caregivers who are offering a helping hand.

Religious and humanitarian acts should not be criminalized.

Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in border and Mexican American history. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. Reprinted from The Progressive Media Project (http://www.progressive.org).

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