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.