Justice for Immigrants

When was the last time you heard a Catholic cardinal calling his flock to civil disobedience? That’s what Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony did in March 2006, urging his people to make room “for the stranger in our midst, praying for the courage and strength to offer our spiritual and pastoral ministry to all who come to us.” The strangers to whom he was referring are the then-estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living on the margins of our society. While much of the immigration debate has been focused on border security and the job market, Mahony added the moral dimension.

He and many other religious leaders were particularly concerned about legislation passed by the House in December 2005 that would impose sanctions on anyone who assists undocumented immigrants. If such a bill became law, it would criminalize social service workers and others—including churches and faith-based organizations—who provide compassionate or humanitarian aid to undocumented people. The crime would be a felony, potentially punishable by stiff fines and up to five years in prison. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mahony said that if such a bill is enacted, he will instruct the priests in his diocese to defy the law in open civil disobedience.

Prior to coming to Sojourners, I spent 17 years living and working in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I was privileged to direct the Bresee Community Center, a faith-based organization that provides educational programs, job training, health care, and basic social services for young people and their families. Through the years, I developed personal relationships with hundreds of children and families who didn’t possess a piece of paper that afforded them legal status in this country. If the law approved by the House had been enacted while I was directing Bresee, I would surely have been eligible for jail.

We certainly need humane immigration reform in this country, but a mean-spirited, criminalization approach that focuses only on border security is not the answer. As we go to print, the Senate’s version of immigration reform looks to be much better than the draconian bill passed by the House or President Bush’s ill-conceived proposal to militarize the border by sending 6,000 troops of the National Guard.

Most of the undocumented people I know are hardworking, family-oriented people. They came to this country for the same reasons people have come for the past 400 years: economic, religious, and political freedom. Many of them fled civil war in their countries or economic conditions so desperate that risking everything to come to this country really wasn’t optional. And most of the young people I worked with had come here at such a young age they had no memories of their home country. They assimilated into our community, learned to speak the language, and educated themselves—yet by no choice of their own, they live in legal limbo.

We should follow the outline for immigration reform developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other church organizations in their Justice for Immigrants campaign, including more visas for family members of immigrants to reduce what can be decades-long waits to reunify, a guest worker program with a path to permanent residency, better legal processes to guarantee immigrant rights, legalization of undocumented immigrants, and economic development in poor countries to reduce the need to migrate.

As a person of faith, I take seriously the words of Leviticus: “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God, your God” (19:33-34).

I hope Cardinal Mahony would have room to welcome an evangelical Christian minister such as me to join him and his fellow priests in civil disobedience. It’s time for people of faith to stand up for our immigrant brothers and sisters, whom I am confident Jesus would have included when he said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Jeff Carr is chief operating officer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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