Cover Story

The new "New Colossus"

Today's illegally huddled masses still yearn to breathe free

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

DALLAS - What's odd about the man wearing a "Bourbon Street University" T-shirt is that he doesn't even drink. His co-workers at a small screen-printing company in Dallas describe him as clean and quiet, a man who doesn't waste time or money on drugs or alcohol. Sure, he cashes his checks at the Lone Star Liquor store down the street, but most of the cash goes back to Mexico to pay for his 21-year-old daughter's education and food for his 19-year-old son.

Armando Gonzalez, 43, is an illegal immigrant. He's not afraid to describe, in quiet, assured tones, how he waded across the Rio Grande nearly naked on Sept. 15, 1999, and waited until the Border Patrol wasn't looking. How he sprinted into the border city of Laredo, Texas, and hid in a local restaurant. How he jumped on a Greyhound bus headed from Laredo to Dallas and had a woman with sharp fingernails scrape his face over and over. (He needed what looked like a scar on his cheek to match the "distinguishing characteristics" item on his stolen passport.)

Mr. Gonzalez recounts the bus ride out of Laredo full of illegal immigrants: At a Border Patrol checkpoint "it was chaos. . . . Everyone with a fake green card got carried off." But he made it and he's not ashamed. Despite the debate currently raging over undocumented immigrants, Mr. Gonzalez says he'd do it again-because he sees it as the way to provide for his two children in Mexico City. Like many other illegals, he left his home to meet financial needs at home, and to keep doing that he feels he must break the law.

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As Congress debates what to do with Mr. Gonzalez and the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States (and the millions more who want to come), communities and Christian charities also face a dilemma: Harsh new penalties will mean denying aid to those in need, while blanket amnesties encourage lawlessness and overwhelm communities already swamped by the influx of illegals.

If migrants like Mr. Gonzalez face a cold reality-how to provide for loved ones back home beneath the law's radar-lawmakers face their own challenge: growing anger from constituencies lobbying for everything from a border wall or security fence along the southern border to total amnesty for undocumented workers and open borders. National polls suggest Americans want action. According to a CNN poll released on April 3, 88 percent of Americans said their views on immigration reform will affect how they vote in midterm elections this November.

"We can't go home in November with nothing," said Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican whose district includes part of the southern border. "That would be unthinkable to our constituents, particularly my constituents." Mr. Pearce voted against a House immigration reform bill put forth by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that eventually won approval in December, saying it was unfair to make employers distinguish between real and forged documents under the penalty of incarceration.

That bill would, among other things, build 700 miles of border fences and step up manpower levels on the southern border. It would increase penalties both for immigrants and for those who hire them. It would rewrite the current law to make a criminal out of anyone who "assists . . . harbors . . . encourages . . . or transports" an illegal alien.

That last provision was the last straw for Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. The Catholic prelate decried the Sensenbrenner bill, saying it would criminalize acts of charity like offering a glass of cold water to a migrant dying of thirst. Such a law, he said, would violate "our gospel mandate, in which Christ instructs us to clothe the naked, feed the poor and welcome the stranger."

That call was particularly poignant because many migrants trek across Arizona's vacant Sonora desert and die trying. During the 12 months beginning in October 2004 and ending last September, 267 migrants died while crossing through the Yuma and Tucson regions in Arizona.

Left-wing mission groups like No More Deaths and Border Action Network also protest the House bill, vowing that they will continue to give aid to stranded migrants who may otherwise die in the desert. Both groups place water stations in the desert. Even such basic assistance is controversial, with some arguing that the water supply only encourages migrants to brave the Sonora.

Meanwhile, evangelical Christians have largely been silent, in part because it's not clear exactly what the House bill would change if enacted. Will Adams, spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo, a co-sponsor of the Sensenbrenner bill, called Cardinal Mahoney's claims "bogus." Mr. Adams said the House bill simply clarifies the current law, which has provisions against citizens rendering aid to illegal immigrants, and is targeted at U.S. citizens who act as smugglers. But No More Deaths, the liberal Christian advocacy group for migrants, states that last July two of its volunteers picked up three stranded and apparently dying migrants and were driving them to their church when they were stopped and arrested. The Border Patrol says the two volunteers were smuggling illegals and had been warned not to do so.

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