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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

Bishops united on immigration

Church mounts aggressive lobbying campaign


The U.S. Catholic church is lending not only its voice to the cause of immigrant rights, but also its formidable 50-state organizational infrastructure.

Among the most prominent voices was that of Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who spoke April 10 at the massive pro-immigrant rally held between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. “We are a nation of immigrants,” McCarrick told the largely Hispanic crowd. “Let us not now turn inward after all these centuries.”

Bishops throughout the country, in an overwhelming show of unity on a difficult public issue, offered similar sentiments to the millions of pro-immigrant protesters who gathered in more than 100 U.S. cities April 8-10. The bishops and the crowds urged support for “comprehensive immigration legislation,” and they opposed a House-passed measure deemed punitive by immigrant activists and church leaders.

More quietly, but no less effectively, the church is deploying its resources behind the scenes.

A case in point: Eleven days before the Senate Judiciary Committee was to vote on an immigration reform proposal, more than 160 state Catholic Conference and diocesan social action workers participated in a conference call with the church’s Washington lobbyists.

The topic was the Kennedy-McCain bill, legislation supported by the bishops that would be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee March 28. The bill largely embraced the goals the bishops had established three years prior in a pastoral letter they issued jointly with the bishops of Mexico. Among its key provisions: a path to citizenship for the 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens residing in the United States, an expanded guest-worker program, and a family-reunification provision that would allow additional green cards for family members of U.S. citizens.

Meeting by teleconference on March 17, the Catholic activists were counting votes.

“How’s Feinstein?” asked one participant, referring to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a potential swing vote on the committee. Speaking through a crackling cell phone, Kevin Appleby, director of public policy at the bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services, urged a get-tough approach with the two-term California Democrat. “Put as much pressure on her as possible,” advised Appleby.

And Republican Sam Brownback, also a committee member? A softer sell was advised. The Kansas conservative, said Appleby, was a cosponsor of the Kennedy-McCain legislation, but was under considerable pressure from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to flip. “We really need to bolster [Brownback] when he is home this week,” said Appleby. “He needs as much love as we can give him.”

On March 28, Brownback joined three other Republican committee members and all of the panel’s Democrats in support of the bill.

The behind-the-scenes legislative maneuvering was one aspect of a broader effort by the leadership of the U.S. church at the national, diocesan and parish levels. More publicly, dioceses throughout the country lent their support to the pro-immigration rallies held in dozens of U.S. cities in late March and early April.

Some conservative critics -- accustomed to having the bishops on their side in high-profile public debates over abortion and same-sex marriage -- say the hierarchy has been duped by its leading liberal members, not least Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony. In a March 27 column in The New York Times Mahony said he would call on his priests to disobey a provision of the House-backed legislation that includes criminal penalties for those who “assist” illegal immigrants. Mahony called on Catholics to attend Mass, pray and fast “for just and humane immigration reform legislation” on April 5.

Conservative commentator George Neumayr wrote in the National Review Online, “Contrary to his faux-pious rhetoric, [Mahony] is speaking not for the Catholic church but for himself, using, in a textbook example of clericalism, the prestige and trappings of his episcopal office to advance nothing more than his personal opinion in favor of open borders.”

However, while Mahony may be the highest profile Catholic cleric on the immigration issue, he’s far from alone.

“It is not right to make immigrants the scapegoats of social and political problems of our nation,” St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke told thousands of pro-immigrant protesters at an April 9 rally. “It is profoundly unjust to place the blame for the acts of terrorism perpetrated by a few at the door of all immigrants,” said Burke, an outspoken conservative on other issues and best known nationally for his pledge to deny pro-choice Sen. John Kerry Communion during the 2004 presidential campaign.

“No political agenda can be more important than the recognition of the dignity of every person,” San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez, an Opus Dei member, told participants at an April 10 “walk for immigrant rights.”

In Illinois, the bishops of the state’s six dioceses, including Chicago Cardinal Francis George, issued a statement April 6 in which they called on Congress “to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation that will lead to a genuine welcome for the stranger in our midst.” Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania church social action worker told the March 17 conference call participants that Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali’s condemnation of the House-passed legislation influenced the subsequent Senate debate. Rigali’s Jan. 6 statement -- in which he said the House bill is “venturing down the path of exclusion and intolerance” -- “really had an impact on [Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen] Specter,” said the church lobbyist.

“The bishops are very clear and very united,” says Leo Anchondo, national manager of the Washington-based Justice for Immigrants Campaign launched by the bishops in early 2005. Their 2003 pastoral letter on immigration “only makes it easier for the bishops to stand united [on the issue] of comprehensive immigration reform.”

The campaign is the most visible sign of the bishops’ commitment to immigration issues. Working with more than a dozen church-related organizations -- from Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network to Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Hospital Association -- the campaign’s three full-time staff have conducted dozens of workshops for diocesan social action directors, developed “points of contact” at five dozen dioceses nationwide, and distributed thousands of “parish kits” with information on everything from suggested homilies to organizing techniques.

The campaign has had an impact.

In an April 5 letter to the nation’s Catholic bishops, Republican Reps. James Sensenbrenner, Henry Hyde and Peter King said that the House bill’s provisions related to churches and others who provide assistance to illegal immigrants have been mischaracterized and are really targeted at those who smuggle undocumented people across the U.S. southern border. “Nonetheless,” wrote the three key committee chairmen, “we stand willing to work with you and other persons of good will to ensure humanitarian assistance efforts are not mistakenly ensnared in this moral effort to end suffering at the hands of human traffickers.”

Further, said Sensenbrenner, Hyde and King, a provision of the House bill making it a felony to be in the United States illegally “is neither appropriate nor workable. We remain committed to reducing this penalty and working with you to this end.”

The members of Congress called for a “thoughtful and respectful dialogue” on immigration, a notion that had been tested earlier by one of the letter’s authors.

In late March, King said the bishops were misrepresenting the House bill, particularly on the question of providing assistance to illegal immigrants. The Long Island, N.Y., representative, a churchgoing Catholic, urged the bishops to “spend more time protecting little boys from pedophile priests.” King did not respond to NCR’s request for an interview.

Prior to the April 10 pro-immigrant rally at which he was a featured speaker, Washington Cardinal McCarrick told NCR, “If I were Rep. King I would be unhappy about the way people are interpreting the bill, but if that is what the language [of the legislation is], then they have to fix the language. With the language that is in there now, a church person who gives help to somebody could be in trouble -- and that’s scary.”

It is unclear whether the Senate will take up the bill when it returns from its recess. Still, should the bill reemerge during this congressional session, at least one thing is clear: A united Catholic church leadership will continue to push for its preferred approach.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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