Church Faces Immigration Challenge With New Congress

The new Republican Congress’ battle with the president over immigration will heat up in January.

Demonstrators hold a vigil in support of immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America outside the White House on Nov. 24.
Demonstrators hold a vigil in support of immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America outside the White House on Nov. 24. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As a new Republican-controlled Congress will be sworn in next month, the Church faces new challenges, both with comprehensive immigration reform and threats by GOP leaders to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive actions that rule out deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants in the country since 2010.

Obama announced Nov. 20 that he was taking executive action to protect many families from breakup through deportation, which could affect 3.5 to 5 million undocumented immigrants living and working illegally in the United States. The same day, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a series of memoranda directing federal agencies to implement the president’s changes.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. has leveled off at 11.3 million — the same number it was in 2009 — with 62% of immigrants having lived in the U.S. 10 years or more. Only 15% have lived in the U.S. less than five years, while 21% have lived in the U.S. more than two decades.

Republicans have called the president’s actions illegal and have pledged to reverse his order. The outgoing Congress’ budget deal only funded DHS until February, setting the stage for a confrontation between Congress and the White House.

“There will be a major battle early in the Congress [session],” said Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Once that’s resolved, however, I can see Congress start turning to: ‘What is our version of immigration reform?’ And then it will shift at that point to what the House and the Senate can pass and what the president can agree to.”


Church’s Voice Heard

Despite the anger of opposition leaders over the president’s action on immigration, the Church’s voice in the debate had been making it into the halls of Congress on both sides of the aisle prior to Christmas break.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic and the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has welcomed the input of Catholic leaders and other groups on immigration reform, according to spokesman Kevin Seifert.

“Congressman Ryan believes we need to fix our broken immigration system, and that starts with securing our border,” Seifert told the Register. “Rather than go around Congress, the president should work with Congress to pass real reforms.”

The Register reached out to the White House for comment but received none by publication time.

What those reforms might be remain to be seen. Any action by the GOP on immigration reform is likely to take place with a series of bills, beginning with border security and ending with measures to legalize the status of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. It likely will not be a comprehensive bill, similar to the one the Democrat-controlled Senate and the president favored last year, which was blocked by the House’s GOP leadership from coming to the floor for a vote.

Appleby said that the bishops’ conference does not have a position about any bills in chamber or how legislatively the immigration reform is passed, so long as it is comprehensive, adheres to the Church’s principles “and has all the elements to fix this system.”

“We would have concerns if they started sending the president different pieces without sending them all at once,” he said. The bishops would like to see Congress send the president “the whole package,” including border security and legalization, “not just pieces of it,” to make sure the reform is not left unfinished.

“They can send him the bills individually, but we would say, ‘Don’t sign any of them until you have all of them.’”


Apprehension, Cynicism

Among the undocumented immigrants who live, work and go to church to pray in the United States, the feelings about President Obama’s executive action giving them temporary legal status are mixed.

“Some are very excited, but others are brokenhearted, saying, ‘I don’t know how to feel because it is going to help my sister, but it is not going to help my cousin,’” said Moises Barraza, a Catholic Chicago-area immigration attorney who provides legal assistance to undocumented immigrants.

Barraza said he has encountered distrust and uncertainty among his clients in regard to the president’s past and present executive actions. About 50% of them who have children who have gone through the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program are more confident about the process, but the other half of his clients are more apprehensive about the future.

The president’s action would help a section of the undocumented-immigrant population (parents of citizens and legal residents) that Barraza said are “caught in a legal limbo.”

“While there are provisions [of DACA] that allow spouses and children of citizens and residents to become legalized through a pardon — even if they entered without inspection — there’s no similar provisions for parents.”

He said he encounters this repeatedly at his practice when undocumented-immigrant parents approach him asking what can be done about their legal status if their son or daughter becomes an adult citizen or legal resident.

“I’ve had to turn them away and say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re in legal limbo; there’s nothing we can do; there’s no pardon for you for having entered without inspection to the United States,’” he said.


Not Implemented Yet

The president’s executive actions will close that loophole for many. However, none of the president’s executive actions on immigration have been implemented yet, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website.

According to the federal website, the president is expanding DACA to include children who have been continuously in the United States since before turning 16 years old, removing the previous age caps, and is expanding provisional waivers of unlawful presence to the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents and the children of U.S. citizens. A new “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents” program will allow parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents present in the country since Jan. 1, 2010, to request deferred action on deportation and employment authorization for three years.

Barraza said the president’s executive action poses a challenge for his clients who are Hispanic and “very family-oriented.” In some cases, for example, parents eligible to stay may have a child who was born in the U.S. but another who is subject to deportation, because he had already turned 16 in 2010.

The deficiencies of the president’s executive action, he said, underscore why immigration reform is essential.

“It’s legalizing, in many cases, half of the families,” he said. “It’s not an intended effect, but that’s what’s happening.”


Catholic Dioceses

Many Catholic dioceses are working to promote the Church’s teaching and position on immigration reform to the Catholics in the pews in order to get them engaged.

Andrew Rivas, director of government and community relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the local Church has been engaged in outreach to parishes on immigration reform and helping to fix the system where it can. He said an outreach to 80 parishes on providing licenses to undocumented immigrants had a “tremendous” positive reception, even among those opposed to giving legal status to the undocumented.

“It’s better that they have a driver’s license, insurance and those things, so that if anything were to happen, like a car accident, they would be protected,” he said.

Rivas, whose work in immigration reform goes back to the 1990s, doubts the GOP will overturn Obama’s executive actions on immigration or override his veto if he exercises it. But he suspected that lawmakers “just want to get rid of this issue.”

The issue of immigration reform is not simply a question for national leaders, Rivas said.

“Catholics should always be more attentive to what their civic leaders are doing in D.C., but they should also be very engaged with this issue at the local level,” he said. “People have no idea how many of their neighbors in the pews are undocumented.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.

Joe Biden leaves after attending Mass at St. Ann Catholic Church on Nov. 21 in Wilmington, Delaware.

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