In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plyler v. Doe, and held that the equal protection clause of the Constitution required that illegal immigrants be allowed access to public education, a decision that has never set well with at least one segment of the population of this country.
Churches, social service agencies and immigration groups across the country are rallying against a provision in the recently passed House border-security bill that would make it a federal crime to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants.
The measure would broaden the nation's immigrant-smuggling law so that people who assist or shield illegal immigrants would be subject to prosecution. Offenders, who might include priests, nurses or social workers, could face up to five years in prison. The proposal would also allow the authorities to seize some assets of those convicted of such a crime.
Proponents of the legislation have argued that such provisions would make it harder for illegal immigrants to thrive in the United States by discouraging people from helping them. The legislation, which cleared the House this month, could also subject the spouses and colleagues of illegal workers to prosecution.
Several Republicans and Democrats in Congress say the measure appears unlikely to become law. But the legislation has touched off an outcry among groups that teach English and offer job training, medical assistance and other services to immigrants.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has written to members of Congress and called on President Bush to oppose the measure publicly. In Manhattan, scores of immigrants demonstrated against the bill last week. Here in the Washington area, a coalition of immigrant-services groups is planning rallies, visits to members of Congress and a letter-writing campaign to try to prevent the immigration bill from becoming law.
"We are going to fight this legislation," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland, one of the advocacy groups rallying against the measure. "The immigrant community is very upset about this."
This law would effect schools as well as churches, and would in effect declare illegal immigrants non-persons. School nurses as well as hospital nurses would become criminals, and priests and congregations offering help to strangers in Jesus' name would become outlaws.
"We never ask for documentation," [Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland] said. "Our mission is to help anyone in need of service, regardless of their immigration status. We are proud of that."In fact, I would be a criminal had this law been in effect 5 years ago. I lived in a neighborhood of very poor people, many of them undoubtedly illegal immigrants, and like Mr. Torres, I never asked for papers before offering them whatever help I had.
Perhaps it would be expedient to remind Mr. Bush of what his "favorite philosopher" said about what we do to "the least of these."