While attention is focused on final negotiations over health-care legislation, Catholic bishops have signaled they will play a leading role in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform this year by using the power of their pulpits and bipartisan political influence on Capitol Hill. Last week, bishops hosted a briefing to outline plans for persuading the public and wavering members of Congress that fixing a broken immigration system is a moral and practical priority.
Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City and Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York -- respective chairmen of the U.S. bishops' committees on migration and international policy -- announced that over a million postcards touting the need for immigration reform have been ordered by dioceses and parishes across the country. Cards will be sent to congressional offices. The effort is one component of a Justice for Immigrants campaign designed to educate the public about Catholic teaching on immigration and to spur political will for humane immigration reform that would bring an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
"It is our view that the American public, including Catholic and other faith communities, want a humane and comprehensive solution to the problems which beset our immigration system, and they want Congress to address this issue," said Bishop Wester. "We remain committed to moving immigration reform as soon as possible."
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the conference is hiring state organizers in strategic areas like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, where there is a sizable Catholic population, and where congressional votes will be critical to passing reform. In the House, over 90 co-sponsors have signed on to a comprehensive reform bill introduced last month by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois. Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Lindsey Graham are working to draft legislation in the Senate. "We are in this to win and hope to influence Congress and the Administration to do the right thing," Appleby said.
While ideologues and pandering politicians often simplify this complex issue, the Catholic Church brings a global perspective that recognizes how U.S. trade policies, poverty in other countries, and development all influence migration. "The first principle of the U.S. bishops with regard to immigration is that migrants have the right not to migrate -- in other words, to be able to find work in their own home countries so they can support their families with dignity," Bishop Hubbard said. "Migration should be driven by choice, not necessity. From the Catholic perspective, integral human development in poor countries is the most humane solution to this challenge."
How that message will resonate at a time of economic hardship and rising anti-immigrant backlash is unclear. But the Catholic vision for a humane immigration system is not only rooted in compelling appeals to justice and morality. Practical arguments are also persuasive. Over the last two decades, the federal government has poured billions into beefing up security along the U.S.-Mexican border. Migrants have responded by finding new and more dangerous routes into the U.S. through the Arizona desert. There is no wall high or long enough to deter the dreams of those seeking a better life. Stopping migration's socioeconomic engine requires more than tough talk from finger-wagging politicians or the cowboy antics of local sheriffs. It requires a systematic response that rejects false choices. We can protect our borders and uphold human dignity.
While anti-immigrant zealots at well-financed organizations make debunking the pernicious myths about immigrants a full-time job, the faith community is mobilized like never before to push for comprehensive reform that includes an earned path to citizenship, strong worker protections, and policies that keep families from being torn apart in raids. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life, Sojourners, and PICO National Network all played a significant role in framing health-care reform as an urgent moral issue. We will be active again with media campaigns, grassroots organizing, prayer vigils, and strategic advocacy in key states on this issue that strikes at the heart of our religious commitment to welcome the stranger. For politicians who pride themselves on standing up for the family and defending American values, their test is coming soon.
John Gehring is Media Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.