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Exodus from Hunger and Poverty: Immigration Reform

Immigration and Bread for the World

February 2013

An exodus from hunger can be metaphorical or literal. Metaphorically, it occurs when economic assistance or development lifts people out of poverty in the places where they live. But poor and hungry people can’t always count on economic development and relief coming to them when they need it. Sometimes they venture out in search of a life beyond their circumstances.

Hunger has long been a potent force behind immigration to the United States. In the 1840s, the Irish potato famine killed a million people and drove two million more to the shores of the United States. Over the past two centuries, tens of millions of people have come to the United States to escape famine and poverty. The countries of origin have changed over time, but the basic motivation for much immigration—escaping poverty—has not changed.

For many of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants now in the United States, immigration has been a literal exodus from hunger.

As Christians, we know that immigration—like all issues—is best understood through theological, congregational, and pastoral perspectives. Consequently, we turn to our faith-rooted ethics regarding the hungry and impoverished sojourners in our midst.

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. —Leviticus 19:33-34

This year will see the best prospects for major immigration reform since at least 2007. It is almost certain that major immigration reform legislation will be developed during the first half of 2013. Bread for the World will contribute to the national immigration reform discussion by emphasizing the role of poverty and hunger as root causes of immigration.

Latin America is the source of more than 80 percent of unauthorized migration to the United States. With visa wait times exceeding 23 years, many immigrants feel they have no choice but to enter the United States illegally to create a better life for their families. Therefore, our national discussion about immigration must include reforming our development policies to eliminate the underlying issues of poverty and lack of economic opportunities abroad—which would be much more effective than increasing border security and tightening laws.

According to Wayne Cornelius, emeritus director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, increased funding for border enforcement cannot alone curb unauthorized immigration. If fact, while U.S. spending on enforcement has increased from $1 billion in 1990 to almost 18 billion in 2012, it hasn’t stopped the number of unauthorized immigrants to the United States from rising by 9 million over the same period.

A primary reason is that U.S. policy in those migrant-sending countries is aimed at increasing security rather than reducing poverty. In 2009, for example, 96 percent of U.S. assistance to Mexico went toward military and police assistance while just 0.1 percent was used on job-creation projects, which would ultimately reduce poverty.

Lawmakers should use this recent push for immigration reform as an opportunity to expand and diversify our development assistance programs that allow potential migrants to form sustainable livelihoods at home.

But immigration reform doesn’t end with improvements in home countries. As President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union address, "Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Republican leaders in Congress have also made encouraging statements about reforming U.S. immigration policy this year.

Reform can be a means of reducing poverty in the United States and building U.S. economic growth. For centuries, immigration has been a mechanism for poor and hungry people around the world to escape poverty and provide for their families—while contributing to the nation’s development. Yet, despite indisputable contributions to the fabric of this nation, immigrants now in the United States have some of the highest food insecurity and poverty rates. Immigration reform must make conditions better for people already here in the United States.

"The Gospel of Matthew invites us to welcome strangers into our midst, saying, 'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,'" said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

"Truly ending hunger means addressing hunger and poverty among all people in the United States and abroad," added Beckmann. "The proposals released so far are good first steps. However, while we address unauthorized immigration to the United States, we must also focus on the plight of all those in extreme poverty around the world. Our country's immigration problem will persist if we do not tackle the root causes of unauthorized immigration."

To learn more about Bread for the World and immigration, visit www.bread.org/immigration.

Second photo: Santiago Cruz is a farmer in San Miguel Huatla, Oaxaca, Mexico, who worked in Canadian agricultural fields to help support his family. He is now back at home and able to support his family with the help of CEDICAM, an organization that teaches sustainable agriculture and health and nutrition to its members. Cruz is featured in the award-winning video Stay by Bread for the World’s Multimedia Manager Laura Elizabeth Pohl. You can watch it at www.bread.org/immigration. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

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