Bishop DiMarzio Looks Back at 1986 Immigration Law

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By Franca Braatz, Allyson Escobar and Emily Drooby

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is committed to immigration reform, dealing with an area that’s been a divisive issue for decades. He and others discussed their views during a panel forum on Aug. 1 that was sponsored by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), a New York-based think tank.

It was held in the offices of law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, LLP in lower Manhattan.

Besides Bishop DiMarzio, Donald Kerwin, executive director of CMS; Charles Kamasaki, a senior adviser with UnidosUS, a nonprofit pro-immigration advocacy group; and Sonia Lin, the deputy commissioner of the New York Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) were on the panel.

Panelists discussed the landmark 1986 immigration law as well as Kamasaki’s new book, “Immigration Reform: The Corpse that Will Not Die,”  which explores the history of that law.

“IRCA (Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) was an important law, because it was able to legalize almost 3 million undocumented people,” Bishop DiMarzio said.

At the time, Bishop DiMarzio was serving as executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the then-U.S. Catholic Conference (now the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops) in 1985.

“It gave them status, and they were already working here,” Bishop DiMarzio said.

“I had just finished my doctoral dissertation on the labor and impact of undocumented people, how they impacted the market, so I was ready to defend that situation.”

Bishop DiMarzio agrees that the legislation “wasn’t perfect — there were a lot of people left out,” he said.

“They were trying to make it restrictive when it wasn’t necessary. The employer sanctions were very debated, but unfortunately, they never really were implemented. If they were, it would have cut down people coming, people could not work. But the business community didn’t enforce it. It had some downsides, but it was a benefit to many people.”

Bishop DiMarzio, who later founded the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. (CLINIC) and served as chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, was a key player in the passage of the 1986 law.

“He has served on international commissions where he has been the sole U.S. representative, for example, on migration policy. In terms of his work with the Catholic Church, he’s been one of the leading figures for over 40 years. And in the Diocese of Brooklyn, of course, it’s a great priority for him as well,” Kerwin told The Tablet. “He was a lobbyist and an advocate, leading the church’s work on behalf of the passage of IRCA.”

Bishop DiMarzio said that the current immigration policy is a “broken situation,” and that there has to be an compassionate, humanitarian and “orderly” way to fix the system, especially for those seeking asylum and who have a case in court pending.

“We just don’t want open borders,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “We have to rethink what immigration means for our country, and find the right rules to regulate it. We need a regulated system, because what’s happening now is people coming in an undocumented way, just walking in, which is not good for anybody. It’s not good for them, and not good for the country.”