WASHINGTON — Cardinal Francis George called on President Obama and Congress to work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.
Issuing a statement June 18 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual spring meeting, held in San Antonio, Cardinal George, conference president, said that people coming to America in order to support their families back home “continue to suffer at the hands of immigration policies that separate them from family members and drive them into remote parts of the American desert, sometimes to their deaths.”
Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform have been heartened by Obama’s promise to pass groundbreaking legislation this year.
But activists worry that immigration reform will lose momentum amid growing fears that the legalization of millions of workers would result in increased competition for jobs during an era of rising unemployment.
Further, a House bill that targets a key immigration issue — family reunification — could emerge as a major stumbling block for Church-based activists, critical players in the pro-reform coalition. The proposed legislation includes both married and same-sex couples; the Catholic bishops, as well as evangelical Christian church groups, oppose any attempt to create “new marriage rights.”
Kevin Appleby, director of the bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policies, remains “hopeful” that Obama will fulfill his campaign promise and address a broad range of immigration issues, a key goal of the U.S. bishops since 2003. Appleby planned to press his agenda when he joined other conference department heads at a meeting with White House staff in late June.
“The popular perception is that the pie is only so big, and guest worker programs and a streamlined path to legalization threaten access to jobs. For many, that’s conventional wisdom,” acknowledged Appleby. “But polls show that 60% of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform and want issues addressed in a humane way.”
Immigration reform comprises an unwieldy collection of political concerns, from maintaining and enforcing border security to initiating a guest worker program to encouraging the return or legalization of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in this country.
Additional issues include family reunification, the cultural assimilation of immigrant communities and providing justice for applicants that have waited in line for years to enter the country legally.
On Capitol Hill, three key bills that address family reunification, a longtime priority of the U.S. bishops, underscore the evolving political challenges posed by immigration reform. Historically, Catholic immigrants have embraced the family and then the Church as their primary means of support in an alien land.
In the House, the broad-based Uniting American Families Act, sponsored by Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., includes provisions for same-sex relationships. In the Senate, the Reuniting American Families Act, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., excludes same-sex partners and is endorsed by the bishops’ conference.
However, an additional Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the influential chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would insert the term “permanent partner” in sections of current immigration law that deal with married couples and would provide a legal definition of what constitutes a “permanent partner.”
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote Honda to register the conference’s strong opposition to his provision for same-sex couples in the Uniting American Families Act. The inclusion of same-sex couples, wrote Bishop Wester, would “erode the institution of marriage and family” and adopts a stance that “is contrary to the very nature of marriage which predates the Church and the state.”
During a break at the U.S. bishops’ semiannual meeting in San Antonio in mid-June, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., a member of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, confirmed to the Register the bishops’ ongoing commitment to immigration reform, even as they resisted any legislative initiatives opposed to Catholic moral teaching.
“The bishops’ position has been consistent and clear. We will continue to press for the right and humane approach to immigration reform,” said Bishop Soto.
But he also vowed that the bishops would defend traditional marriage. Same-sex “marriage” “is still a contested issue nationwide. There is no consensus on this matter, and to try to insert it in immigration law seems contrived. It’s an attempt to backdoor some kind of federal recognition of same-sex unions. I doubt that it is politically viable.”
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and a strong ally of the U.S. bishops on immigration and traditional marriage, backed the bishops’ position.
“The same-sex language in Congressman Honda’s bill is explicit and will became a platform for federal endorsement of same-sex unions and benefits. It’s not fair to immigrants or to the gay and lesbian community,” contended Rodriguez. “I appreciate the bishops’ support for immigration reform and for transcendent values.”
Rodriguez feared that if Honda’s bill gained traction, moderate and conservative Democrats, as well as Republicans, might withdraw their support for comprehensive reform. “Immigration reform is already a polarizing issue. If the inclusion of same-sex couples continues to be pushed, it may be the death knell,” he said.
But Honda contested this judgment and argued that religious groups wrongly opposed provisions for same-sex couples. “The bill does not create new marriage rights. It allows permanent partners who meet stringent criteria to reunite with their loved ones,” said Honda, who noted that his bill covered a broad cross section of 2.7 million petitioners.
Catholic leaders acknowledge that the proposed inclusion of same-sex relationships is just one of many issues that could derail their efforts to aid struggling immigrants. The economic crisis has not only distracted the president, it has intensified widespread concern about the economic and social consequences of legalizing millions of workers.
Recognizing that American voters must embrace comprehensive immigration reform as a source of economic stability, Catholic leaders have moved beyond the human-rights issues to underscore the benefits of drawing illegal immigrants into the economic mainstream.
Bishop Soto, who meets regularly with immigrants as well as big landowners in Sacramento, part of the nation’s agricultural center, reported that short-staffed rural employers typically endorse the Church’s high-profile advocacy.
But the pro-reform message could be a tougher sell in Washington, where many constituents and a spectrum of interest groups press politicians to enforce immigration laws and send illegal immigrants back home. “We need workers, but we don’t want to give them legal protections. Thus, they suffer, they die, and they can be exploited,” contended Appleby.
Yet even in the nation’s capital, local Church leaders believe there is cause for hope.
“The No. 1 goal for immigration reform is justice for those who are working by granting them permanent permission to work. We’re helping the poor, working families, and those who want to build up the country,” said Father Mario Dorsonville, director of the Washington Archdiocese’s Spanish Catholic Center, a leading source of social, educational, medical and job-training services for low-income Hispanics in the District.
Though Father Dorsonville echoed broader anxiety about the passage of comprehensive immigration reform bills, he celebrated one very positive indicator: “This year our annual fundraising gala made even more than last year — almost $400,000. People understand that now more than ever we need to help.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.