WASHINGTON — Though the urgency of the mounting Syrian crisis has become the focal point for upcoming congressional debate, a domestic issue still looms in the background: Can a consensus be reached on immigration reform?

Even as the immigration discussion is back-burnered for the moment, dioceses across the United States are mobilizing grassroots support for immigration policy change, and this Sunday —  the feast of Our Lady’s birthday — will be a key moment in their campaign.

A survey released in April is among recent polls showing that Catholics overwhelmingly back immigration reform. Now, the U.S. bishops’ conference is trying to capitalize on that support and pressure Congress to get legislation passed this term.

“The goal here is to take that [Catholic] support and translate it into action, which has been our stumbling block in the past,” said Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. bishops’ conference. 

The bishops’ campaign was not something scheduled months ago. Instead, in the wake of the Senate passage of immigration reform legislation in June, and the House’s plans to take up the issue this autumn, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) decided to seize the moment.

A campaign like this on immigration has never been done “to this degree,” Appleby commented. “We have to be strategic.”

“This is the best chance we’ve had in getting some reform in six to seven years,” he said. “We need to put our best foot forward and do all we can to get something through. So, in a lot of ways, [this campaign] is unprecedented, in terms of the level of participation and the number of events that will be occurring.”

The effort aims to get “significant Catholic support for the bill so that the representatives feel comfortable with moving forward,” Appleby added.


Nearly Unanimous

Bishops and other Catholic agencies, including universities and charities, were encouraged in early July to capitalize on the political environment and add their voices to the push coming from other sectors.

Suggestions were provided, ranging from local pilgrimages to bulletin inserts, public forums, and particularly Masses on this Sunday, Sept. 8.

Thus, from Minnesota to Texas and L.A. to Washington, bishops and other Catholic leaders are contacting Congress, writing the news media and educating the local public on the issue. A group of more than 90 Catholic university directors contacted Catholics in Congress to urge reform, and the list of other activities is long.

A snapshot of these and some of the other initiatives is recorded at the website of Justice for Immigrants. Masses and events will be held in 22 states, many of them this weekend. And Antonio Cube, national manager for the bishops’ Justice for Immigrants organization, says the list is probably only about one-fifth of all that is going on around the country.

“We’ve been very pleased with the response,” Appleby commented, and Cube described the bishops’ feedback as “just about unanimous.”


Proper Channels

Still, both Appleby and Cube recognize that, among Catholics, there are obviously a variety of outlooks regarding immigration reform and some reluctance regarding legislative prospects.

Traci Osuna, a Catholic from Omaha, Neb., notes that her Mexican-born husband feels strongly that immigrants should not be in the country illegally.

“When people first meet Raul, they may assume certain things because he is Mexican or has a strong accent. [...] Perhaps they assume he is all about opening the borders or granting amnesty.”

Instead, she explained, “He feels strongly that immigrants — no matter where they are from — should go through the proper channels, as he did, to become an American citizen. He sees that the United States is a great country and has opportunities for anyone. He came here as a resident alien and didn’t speak much English at all. He attended the community college to learn how to speak English and has created a good life for himself and our family.”

Meanwhile Michael Mayans, a Catholic lawyer from the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., expressed doubts about the role Church leadership is taking in advocating legislative reform.

Mayans acknowledged the bishops’ “legitimate role to play” and the need to promote “principles of Catholic social doctrine, which should be considered.”

He expressed reservations, however, because he said he feels the USCCB can create an impression “that Catholics are morally obligated to support a particular immigration-reform proposal.” The laity have to evaluate “these complex public-policy issues,” he said, and determine what “course of action best serves the common good.”

Mayans further noted concern about what might come out of Congress: “The USCCB is promoting the necessity of immigration reform, because the current situation is bad. [...] I’m not sure an all-out legislative push is prudent, given how dysfunctional Congress is.”

Even if Osuna and Mayans express certain hesitations about the bishops’ campaign, they are among the Catholic majority who see current immigration policy as untenable.

And the bishops’ officials recognize ambivalence among some Catholics. Still, Cube was emphatic, “It’s part of our mission as Catholics to improve society.”

“We can educate and inform folks about our principles, based on our teaching, our history, our Catholic tradition,” he said. “We can educate our people ... and that’s what the bishops are doing in this case.”


‘Reset the System’

Appleby acknowledged that the bishops might need to communicate better about parts of their position. For example, he noted “valid concerns” about the rule of law.

“The rule of law is very important,” he said. “What the bishops believe is that there is no rule of law now, and that the system is based on illegal behavior. We have a system that says ‘keep out’ at the border, but ‘help wanted’ at the workplace. ... What the bishops are saying is: ‘Let’s reset the system and create some legal avenues so that people can play by the rules.’”

Cube, too, recognized that there’s a “long road to travel yet,” but he insisted that changes have to be made.

“What’s in the Senate bill is not perfect,” he said. “But if nothing is passed this year, we go back to the status quo, which is families being separated, 11 million-plus people living in the shadows, many of them in ‘mixed-status’ families, where one or both parents are ‘undocumented,’ one or all of the children are U.S. citizens. So they are going to live in fear of family separation. If they’re individuals, they live in fear of deportation.”

“Would we rather go back to that? Or do something for people now?” Cube asked. “Let’s try and move something now, and then continue to improve it.”

Register correspondent Kathleen Naab writes from Houston,

where she covers news of the Church as a coordinator for Zenit News Service.