Like Campaigns, Catholic Voters Disengaged From Immigrant Issues

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Although the bishops of the United States have called on Christians to care for immigrants, the problem of immigration does not seem to be on the radar screens of most Catholic voters this year.

Even Margarita Williams, a newly naturalized immigrant from Mexico who works at the Diocese of Phoenix, does not consider it to be a major issue in her discernment of which candidate will get her vote Nov. 2.

“I'm more interested in international politics,” said Williams, a Mexico City native. If the president “has a good international strategy, then the situation that will surround his decisions will be better for the other countries. If these international decisions affect my country in a good way, then we won't have as many” immigrants.

Although both major-party candidates have put forth similar proposals for immigration reform, they seem to have backed off the issue completely.

In January, President George Bush floated the idea of a guest-worker program, and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry has promised amnesty-type legislation for foreigners working here illegally.

Yet, in spite of continued massive illegal immigration, neither Kerry nor Bush mentioned immigration in their acceptance speeches at the national party conventions.

“One of the issues politicians on both sides have a hard time touching — especially in an election year — is the whole issue of what to do about illegal migration,” said Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration.

“Both President Bush and the Democratic Congress have advanced proposals for immigration reform,” he said. “Both sides are headed toward the same direction.

“There is a pragmatic recognition that some remedy has to be provided for these people, a remedy that would permit them to regularize their status and to remain in the United States,” Bishop Wenski said.

Polls show that most Americans oppose giving amnesty to those who sneak across the border. However, amnesty is a top priority with many Hispanic leaders who preside over the nation's fastest-growing minority population.

Desert Hazards

That message rings true for Catholic Charities USA, an umbrella organization for 1,400 agencies and institutions nationwide. The group focused its national conference in late September on the immigration issue.

The plight of refugees and those seeking entry to the United States has worsened since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Jesuit Father Christopher Lockard, legislative counsel for Catholic Charities USA.

Recently, there have been reports that Al Qaeda terrorists may be crossing into the United States through Mexico. Strict monitoring along zones of the border has squeezed job-seekers trying to enter illegally into the harshest part of the desert.

“There've been at least 300 deaths this year,” Father Lockard said. “People are going to continue to come as long as the economic differential is so great. The unintended consequence of locking down on the border has resulted in people passing through the desert trying to make it through, many dying.

“Many of the immigrants are, in fact, Catholic. Many of the Catholics have hired them. These are the people that take care of the elderly in nursing homes, take care of children in day cares; they clean our lawns and sweep our streets,” Bishop Wenski said. “The more salient issue is that these people are human beings.”

Often transported by professional smugglers called “coyotes,” immigrants are often subject to poor working conditions and exploitation at the hands of their employers.

But that kind of abuse would be a thing of the past under President Bush's guest-worker program, according to Bush-Cheney spokes-woman Sharon Castillo.

“The program would grant all the undocumented aliens temporary-worker status to prevent exploitation — and they would be issued a temporary-worker card,” she said. “It will also allow them to travel back and forth between their home and the U.S. without fearing being denied entry or being deported. Those are two of the most important things for our (Latino) community.”

The program, unveiled in a White House ceremony in January, would match willing workers with willing employers. Participants would be able to apply for permanent resident status and then full citizenship under the existing process.

Kerry's plan would grant amnesty to illegal aliens. He has also vowed to sign the bipartisan AgJobs bill, which would grant legal residency status to undocumented farm workers.

But Castillo cast doubt on Kerry's experience with the issue, saying he wrote only two bills dealing with immigration in his 20 years in Congress.

“And those…have nothing to do with legalizing anybody or a temporary-workers’ program,” she said. “They have to do with adoption…. He's done nothing about it.”

The Kerry campaign fired back that, during his Senate career, the Massachusetts senator sponsored or co-sponsored at least 55 pieces of legislation dealing with immigration. “John Kerry has a strong record of supporting earned legalization, restoring benefits to legal immigrants, family reunification, refugee/asylum protection and strengthening our borders,” said Kerry spokesman Jin Chon.

People Not a Problem

Bishop Wenski, however, says support for immigration reform is widespread, with support from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor.

“When you have business and labor both agreeing that the immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, there's a convergence of interest,” he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ election-year document, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” calls on Catholics to care for those in need, whether or not they have legal documentation.

“While affirming the right and responsibility of sovereign nations to control their borders and to ensure the security of their citizens, especially in the wake of Sept. 11, we seek basic protections for immigrants, including due-process rights, access to basic public benefits, and fair naturalization and legalization opportunities,” the bishops said. “We oppose efforts to stem migration that do not effectively address its root causes and permit the continuation of the political, social and economic inequities that contribute to it. We believe our nation must remain a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution and suffering exploitation — refugees, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking.”

The document also says America should adopt a more generous immigration and refugee policy, including a legalization program, and encourages “addressing the root causes of migration.”

The crux of the bishops’ position is that no human being should be considered a “problem,” Bishop Wenski said.

“By making a class of human beings a problem, we offend their dignity; then we look to apply solutions” to the problem, he explained. “If we think an unborn child is a problem, then the solution is abortion…. If we think the undocumented alien is a problem, then the solution can be locking them up or deporting them.”

For an immigrant like Alfredo Abolio, “we don't understand what the (immigration) problem means.”

“It is something we will have to learn to handle,” the Venezuela native and naturalized citizen said. “The problem isn't that foreigners come into the (United) States, because it was founded by foreigners. They give a big boost to the economy.”

Still, immigration is not high on the list for Abolio in his voting decision this year. The parishioner of Christ the King Parish in Ann Arbor, Mich., recognized as a “charismatic parish” by the Diocese of Lansing, sees abortion as the No. 1 issue, followed by the things the government spends taxpayer money on, what he sees as the irresponsible exercise of judicial power, and the war in Iraq.

With immigration reform pushed to the back burner, Bishop Wenski said he believes Congress will act on legislation no matter which candidate is elected.

Said the bishop, “Hopefully, after the election, both sides will be able to negotiate something that will be better than the present situation.”

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.