Immigrant church must lead the way on immigration reform, cardinal says

NEW YORK – Catholic leaders and universities should “come out of the shadows” and take a significant role in educating those who are ambivalent or undecided about the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, according to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.

“We are an immigrant church ourselves since the founding days of the republic,” the cardinal said in a May 3 presentation at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.

“The immigrant experience is our own,” he added. “We should be front and center in leading the charge for immigration reform not only because it is a matter of justice, but also because it is part of our identity as a church.”

Cardinal Mahony said Christ himself “was an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head” and “a refugee who fled the terror of Herod.”

“When we welcome the newcomer, we welcome him,” he said. “We need to do more to ensure that we do not become a nation that treats those who look foreign as suspect and to be investigated, even arrested, merely on the basis of their appearance.”

Cardinal Mahony, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said immigration reform had been “drifting off the legislative agenda into the fog of uncertainty and inaction” until April 23, when the governor of Arizona signed a sweeping immigration bill aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.

Cardinal Mahony characterized the law as “the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, useless anti-immigration legislation.” He said Gov. Jan Brewer’s signing of the law “has helped to reinvigorate the comprehensive immigration reform movement and made clear the consequences of failure to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.”

He said the Arizona law uses “vague and vexing language” to describe under what circumstances a person may be challenged to prove legal status. The law allows the police to stop people if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country illegally, but Cardinal Mahony said, “No one in any major Arizona office is willing to publish one-page criteria to define reasonable suspicion.”

The lack of clarity about the enforcement of the law has spread “fear and fright” throughout the immigrant community and brought a “renewed sense of energy and urgency” to the issue, he said.

Cardinal Mahony said the extreme polarization of the immigration debate is “toxic to our system.” He urged bipartisan support for federal immigration legislation that could be signed by President Barack Obama “sooner rather than later.”

“A central feature of reform should be to bring the 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and offer them a secure path to legal status,” he said. “In return, these immigrants would learn English, pay a fine and work for several years before earning the right to receive permanent legal status.”

Cardinal Mahony said he was not advocating amnesty, but “a path forward, which will require enormous sacrifices on the part of the immigrants every step of the way.”

“No one is asking for open borders and unchecked immigration,” he said.

He said reform should also include provisions to allow more migrant workers to enter the United States legally and improve the family-based reunification system.

Cardinal Mahony said mixed families, those with documented and undocumented members, “are not leaving. Let’s get them out of the shadows.”

Further, he said if Social Security cards were harder to forge, it would be easier for employers to verify whether potential employers were eligible to work.

Enacting comprehensive immigration reform makes economic sense, said Cardinal Mahony. He cited a January 2010 report by the Center for American Progress that predicted an increase of $1.5 trillion in cumulative gross domestic product over 10 years if enforcement-only immigration policies were replaced by ones that stressed worker empowerment, legal status and labor rights.

Cardinal Mahony said the United States needs foreign laborers and people want to come to this country to make a better life for themselves, but current policies send a mixed message. He quipped that two signs appear side by side on the U.S. border – one warning “No Trespassing” and the other advertising “Help Wanted.”

He said the United States must devise a mechanism to “regulate the need and flow of seasonal and temporary workers.” The two major laws governing immigration were passed in 1929 and 1986, he said. The reluctance to enact comprehensive new laws allows a bad situation to “fester” and makes it easy for detractors to “scapegoat people with no power, no voice and no money.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.