Priest offers suggestion to fix immigration
The Rev. Greg Plata doesn’t use the word “illegal” when talking about the Hispanic immigrant population in Mississippi.
“No human person is illegal, but they are undocumented,” he says.
He also believes the effort, fueled by politicians in Mississippi and elsewhere, to make Hispanics the scapegoat for the country’s economic woes could drive them further underground and into the life of the permanent underclass.
“They are hard-working, and they want to be a part of the American culture and way of life, but most live in fear and, therefore, are keeping to themselves because they know what’s going on in Arizona and also the sentiments of some Mississippi politicians who are targeting them.”
Last week, Mississippi lawmakers spent two days in hearings on illegal immigration that shed little new light on the hot-button topic. The hearings were prompted by the push by some lawmakers to emulate Arizona and pass legislation next year to empower state and local lawmen to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. Most of the Arizona law has been put on hold while its constitutionality is battled out in the courts.
The most interesting testimony in the two days came from a former legislator, Gene Saucier. The Hattiesburg tree farmer warned lawmakers to tread lightly on an immigration crackdown. They might not like the unintended consequences to the state’s economy.
Hispanics fill a majority of the jobs in catfish- and chicken-processing plants in Mississippi and have a heavy presence in agriculture and construction as well. Plata echoes Saucier’s warning but does so with a more dire prediction.
“If the undocumented workers were to be let go and sent back to Mexico, we would have to face the reality that the economy of Mississippi, especially in the Delta, would greatly suffer, if not collapse.”
At St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, where Plata is pastor, he and his fellow Franciscans have spent the past eight years reaching out to the Hispanic community in Leflore County. (As a point of disclosure, Plata is also my pastor.) Plata has been studying Spanish off and on for several years so that he can offer Mass and deliver his homily in the native language of his newest congregants. Plata knows a whole lot more about the hard life and economic contributions of Hispanic immigrants than those who want to root them out.
The priest says there are several thousand Hispanic immigrants in Leflore County. About half of them, he estimates, are undocumented. Most of them originally came to Mississippi legally on work visas but later decided not to go through the hassle and uncertainty of returning to Mexico to renew their paperwork.
“Many stayed, and employers, because they were such a good work force, basically looked the other way,” Plata says.
He disputes the notion that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Mississippi citizens. Immigrants do, he says, the low-paying, back-breaking work for which native residents aren’t lining up.
Despite his sympathies, Plata doesn’t advocate a blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants. Instead, he says, the nation should enact a system of registration, giving the 12 million undocumented people in this country three months to sign up with the government and be issued an identification number and picture ID. That ID card, good for five years, would be required to be presented to employers. It also could be used to apply for such things as a driver’s license and automobile insurance. Any undocumented immigrant who failed to register would be deported if caught.
During the five years, Plata says, the immigrants would be expected to work toward meeting certain conditions, such as learning English, American civics, budgeting and how the U.S. economy works. If the assimilation went well, they then could apply for citizenship or reapply for another five-year permit.
The Delta should understand the comparison Plata draws between Hispanic immigrants and earlier generations of foreigners who settled in this land and added to its flavor.
“These good people, and I stress the word ‘good,’ are like our Italian and Lebanese and Scotch-Irish and Jewish immigrant ancestors who came here simply looking for a better way of life.”
Tim Kalich is the editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.