Thy Perfect Light

Last Tuesday, the Vatican officially recognized the Epiphany of the Lord, or Three Kings Day, with Pope Benedict XVI celebrating the Feast (moved to the previous Sunday in Baltimore and many local Churches throughout the world) which marks the visit of the Magi who followed a star to a manger in Bethlehem in pursuit of the promise and hope of the newborn Savior.

Fittingly, in the days that follow the Epiphany each year, Catholics in the United States recognize similar journeys made by modern-day peoples whose pursuits mirror those of the “Three Kings.” The observance of National Migration Week, whose theme this year is “Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice,” began 25 years ago by the U.S. bishops “to be a moment for Catholics to take stock of the wide diversity of the Church…”

With a new administration and a new Congress preparing to take office, our elected officials will once again be faced with fixing a broken immigration system in our country. The impact of the current system on families has been a particular focus of the Bishops and was addressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his in-flight press conference on his way to the United States. “…I have seen the breadth of this problem, especially the serious problem of the break-up of families … it appears that families should be protected rather than destroyed. What can be done should be done.”

My op-ed piece in the Jan. 5 Baltimore Sun (below) focused on the impact of our country’s current immigration policies on the dignity of the human person and the welfare of families. The responses, so far, have been mostly favorable and included many good questions about the Church’s position on this complex issue which are addressed in four documents produced by the Maryland-serving bishops and which are located on the Maryland Catholic Conference Web site, The U.S. Bishops will continue to work with government leaders toward addressing the issue in a humane and comprehensive way. I ask for your prayers for this effort, for our nation, and for all who leave their homelands in search of justice and hope following the example of the Magi some 2,000 ago.

If the presidential election was a tutorial in American politics and the national and international policy challenges of the still-new millennium, it failed to provide instruction in one of the nation’s most neuralgic problems: What to do about the estimated 12 million people who are in the country illegally.

Both President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain supported reform legislation that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a temporary guest-worker program to admit future immigrants, and tougher border and workplace enforcement.

Yet the issue was not discussed at any of the three presidential debates, and only rarely in other forums.

It is unclear where the issue will fall among the incoming administration’s priorities. It should be near the top, if for no other reason than to provide some just resolution to a public debate that is dangerously corrosive and will only worsen with inaction.

Why, you may be asking yourself, is a Catholic archbishop concerning himself with the issue of immigration?

It’s simple. Among my primary concerns as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Baltimore are the dignity of the human person and the welfare of families. These concerns are intimately connected with immigration – legal and otherwise – and so it necessarily demands my attention.

More parochially, it’s also an issue that has demonstrably impacted the people I am called to serve.

It is a sad acknowledgment that frustration over immigration has turned heated, and even uncharitable, at some of our churches. Meanwhile, a number of the 45 undocumented immigrants arrested in a June raid in Annapolis were members of our parishes.

These experiences are a microcosm of the national environment regarding immigration and are clear and compelling evidence that comprehensive and just reform of our immigration system cannot be delayed.

Our national bishops’ conference has endorsed the path- to-citizenship and border security route that was the hallmark of the 2006 legislation supported by President George W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate, but that ultimately died for want of House action.

This model received – and continues to garner – the bishops’ endorsement because it secures in the area of immigration the basic framework from which all laws should operate: It serves the common good.

More specifically, it promotes human dignity by offering to eligible undocumented immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows and become full participants in society by gaining citizenship if they meet reasonable criteria.

It also protects immigrant families by allowing many, if not most, of them to remain together. On this point my brother bishops and I remain unequivocal: The family is the primary unit of society and, as such, priority in immigration matters must be given to family (re)unification.

Finally, the proposal promotes social well-being and development because it stabilizes the status of millions of undocumented workers, thereby reducing exploitation, and protects national security by mandating tougher border and workplace enforcement.

It is not just the bishops, however, who endorse a comprehensive reform package.

A recent national poll conducted by Zogby found that 69 percent of Catholics support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who register with the government.

All of this means little, of course, unless our elected officials take it upon themselves to make just and comprehensive immigration reform a priority.

Some of our Maryland members of Congress appear timid in embracing such a proposal. In a candidate survey conducted this fall by the Maryland Catholic Conference, only two of the state’s sixteen major party congressional candidates (and one of the eight eventual victors) indicated their support for a path-to-citizenship model.

Nevertheless, the time has come to tackle this issue. Obviously, the economy is dominating the headlines, and rightly so.

But 12 million individuals – mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, individuals on whose work we rely – remain in a precarious situation, and our public discourse about them and their fates is too often poisonous.

Comprehensive and just immigration reform may not have been a feature on the campaign trail, but I pray it will be given full consideration by our president-elect and the next Congress.

Catholic Review

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