National Catholic Register

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Not Preaching to the Choir?

Bishops Struggle to Air Their Views on Immigration


| Posted 7/27/10 at 9:30 AM

CNS photo/Joshua Lott, Reuters

WASHINGTON — Arizona’s controversial immigration law takes effect July 29 — unless the Obama administration succeeds in blocking it.

The law is expected to complicate efforts on Capitol Hill to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year — a longtime legislative goal of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But even if the president’s legal challenge is successful, the nation’s Catholic bishops hope Arizona’s plight will be a wake-up call for legislators in Washington, D.C.

“The Arizona law is the result of growing levels of frustration and fear that have developed within the state,” acknowledged Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who also serves as the U.S. bishops’ conference’s vice president. “But the bishops of Arizona do not believe this bill is the answer. The real answer is comprehensive immigration policy at the federal level.”

Last week in a Phoenix federal district courthouse, Judge Susan Bolton reviewed sharply opposing arguments by the Justice Department and the state of Arizona. But she has yet to issue a ruling, which could come at any time.

Attorney General Eric Holder hopes to secure a preliminary injunction against Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which he criticizes as both an untenable challenge to the federal government’s traditional role in setting immigration policy and a problem for U.S. foreign policy. If Holder obtains the preliminary injunction, legal experts predict the judge will ultimately strike down the state law.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, however, contends that the state has been forced to act because federal immigration laws have not been effectively enforced. If the measure stands, it will be a violation of state law to be in the country illegally; police engaged in routine law enforcement will be permitted to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally.

Whatever the law’s fate, polls confirm its broad popularity, not only in Arizona, but across the country. Support for the law reflects mounting public frustration with the real and perceived issues linked to illegal immigration during a time of economic crisis.

During testimony this month before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law, Bishop Kicanas argued that voters want real solutions to a “broken” system and that the Arizona law should revitalize the push for immigration reform in the nation’s capital.

“The message is to break the partisan paralysis and act now,” Bishop Kicanas stated in his testimony. “Without congressional action on immigration reform — sooner rather than later — other states will pass similar laws, to the detriment of our nation.”

He added that he witnesses “the human consequences of our broken immigration system in my diocese’s social service programs, hospitals, schools and parishes.”

Political Will?

President Obama signaled his interest in addressing immigration reform in a July 1 speech, but even immigrant-rights groups agree that Capitol Hill isn’t prepared to work out a compromise during an already contentious election year.

“The situation in Arizona has brought national attention to the crisis in the immigration system. But it will be difficult for Congress to act before the election,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group for Hispanics in America.

“The administration seems not to be anxious to advance legislation unless there were some assurance that 60 senators would support it,” noted Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a longtime Catholic leader on immigrant issues. “Unless there would be some action during a ‘lame duck’ session of Congress after the November elections, it seems that we are far away indeed.”

Republican senators say border security must be stepped up before they address divisive issues like legalization for illegal immigrants. But the USCCB’s director of migration policy and public affairs, Kevin Appleby, questions the logic of narrowly focusing on enforcement issues.

“Since 2000, the U.S. government has spent more than $100 billion on immigration enforcement,” Appleby wrote in the July 4 edition of the Register. “During the same period, the number of undocumented persons has grown from 6 million to 12 million, and border communities continue to see drug-related violence. Since 1998, nearly 5,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the American desert.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform, as supported by the U.S. bishops, would help achieve the seemingly incompatible principles of a secure border and a generous immigration policy,” Appleby continued.

The USCCB seeks passage of a number of measures, including an expansion of a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented persons in the country and the creation of a new worker program, which would permit unskilled migrant laborers to obtain visas to come to the United States legally and work under certain conditions.

A recent USCCB-sponsored poll concluded that “69% of Catholics supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented, provided they register with the government.”

Prudential Judgments

But the bishops’ support for immigration reform has also sparked considerable debate and a measure of antagonism. Bishops who have used their own Internet blogs to criticize the Arizona law have received a flood of overwhelmingly negative comments.

“Some Catholics, on hearing Catholic bishops speak on social doctrine and social issues, can’t help thinking that the bishops embrace pious visions but avoid real messiness and costs and low probabilities of success,” said Michael Novak, the prominent Catholic thinker and an occasional critic of USCCB policy positions.

“Regarding immigration, there are probably hundreds of legitimate prudential judgments among Catholics about which are the most moral and realistic policies to support,” Novak observed. “Some of these judgments seem a lot less naive than others.”

Asked for his response, Archbishop Wenski acknowledged some “legitimate concerns regarding the rule of law — and so sometimes an immigrant’s ‘illegal status’ does not win him sympathy.”

But the archbishop also suggested that believing Catholics should take the Church’s social teaching to heart. Catholics in America “should not be divided on this issue. And the bishops, in our pastoral letter, ‘Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope: A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration from the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States,’ give clear teaching that good Catholics should be open to receiving.”

The archbishop vowed that Florida’s Catholic bishops would be “vigorously opposed to any attempt to pass a Florida-specific law, as was done in Arizona. Such an attempt would prove, I fear, divisive and counterproductive.”

In Arizona — the “epicenter” of an increasingly volatile immigration debate — Bishop Kicanas has echoed the Church’s consistent concern for the social needs and human rights of migrants.

But the bishop also has looked for opportunities to clarify the USCCB position, disputing common mischaracterizations of the bishops’ stance, and he has initiated public forums where all points of view are aired.

“Some people believe the Church is supporting open borders, but the Church does not support open borders, and it doesn’t support amnesty,” said Bishop Kicanas. “What the bishops are asking and pressing for is an earned pathway to citizenship. Illegal immigrants could come out of the shadows and wait their turn.”

“But we have legitimate policy concerns, like family reunification,” he added. “The Arizona law could force mothers or fathers or young people, who never lived outside this country but do not have proper papers, to leave the United States.”

Earlier this year, Bishop Kicanas presided at the funeral of Rob Krentz, the Arizona rancher whose still unsolved murder fueled support for the Arizona law.

Initial reports suggested that Krentz had been killed by an illegal immigrant, but state law enforcement officials have yet to confirm the identity of the rancher’s assailant.

“Krentz’s murder cries out for justice,” said the bishop, noting that the Church’s stake in the immigration policy debate was not limited to the plight of migrants, but also the plundering of Arizona ranches and the safety of border patrol officials.

“The Church has been criticized for getting involved in politics,” he said. “But it’s actually concerned with public policy — how we live together in a community.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.