Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo courtesy Bob Roller, Catholic News Service

COMMENTARY: The tragedy of America's failed immigration system

WASHINGTON (RNS) The saga of immigrants in 2014 may go down in history as a blight on America. Tragedies abound, from thousands who have died trying to cross the desert from impoverished Mexican towns, to little children born here and fighting for their parents to remain in the country with them. The government is setting records separating families, approaching 2 million deportations in the past five years.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez wants “a moratorium on any further deportations or immigration raids and arrests, except in cases of violent criminals.” In his archdiocesan newspaper, he noted that “one in every four persons who is being arrested or deported is being ripped out of their homes -- taken away from their children, their wives and husbands, all their relatives.”

Children have brought him letters they had written to Pope Francis, and Gomez has sent the writings to the Vatican. He quoted from a letter from a young girl named Jersey, whose dad had been in an immigration detention center for two years and now is being deported.

“Dear Pope Francisco, Today is my birthday. My birthday wish is I would like to have my dad to be with me. … It has been so long that he hasn’t been with me on two of my birthdays, last year and today. … Since my father isn’t here my mom and sister have been trying to find a job. … Since you are the closest to God, I beg you to help my family. … Sincerely, Jersey.”

That’s heart-rending, as are accounts of the more than 6,000 people who have died in the past 15 years crossing the desert to our Land of the Free. On April 1, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and several other U.S. bishops will pray at the border wall in Nogales, Ariz., for those immigrants who have died trying to earn bread for their children. They will also pray for the family members who are without loved ones because of the deportations.

The United States loves data, but I hope it won’t be judged by its damning statistics:

  • The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has deported close to 2 million people in the past five years, an average of more than 400,000 persons a year. How many families were wrenched apart?
  • The U.S. Office of Management and Budget reports that the budget for the U.S. Border Patrol has increased tenfold since 1993, from $363 million to $3.5 billion. Given that the undocumented population has tripled since 1986 to 11 to 12 million people today, by economic standards that's a pretty weak return on investment.
  • The Department of Homeland Security reports that as of February 2014, almost 700 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing has been completed along the U.S.-Mexico border. Perhaps that's a boon for the confinement industry.
  • The Congressional Research Service reports that 208,939 unauthorized immigrants were prosecuted as criminals under Operation Streamline from 2005 to the end of fiscal year 2012. They are sentenced in “group” trials that provide apprehended immigrants few legal rights. Aren’t guaranteed legal rights one of the hallmarks of our democracy?
  • In fiscal year 2012, the Department of Homeland Security incarcerated more than 477,000 people, a record. Yet since 2003, about 2.5 million immigrants have been detained in the U.S. detention system. Surely they did not comprise 2.5 million threats to the U.S.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo courtesy Bob Roller, Catholic News Service

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo courtesy Bob Roller, Catholic News Service

The data shows that our nation’s effort to cope with undocumented persons does not work. It is costly, most especially, I fear, for the soul of a nation.

(Sister Mary Ann Walsh is the director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)