Illegal Immigrants, Immigration Reform and the Catholic Church

Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a key advocacy group, wrote on 5/1 about the church’s positive, perhaps even militant stand, in regarding undocumented workers rights. He write about recent events and gives a short history of the experience of Catholic immigrants in the early decades of the 20th Century, when they often suffered from discrimination. “Cardinal Roger Mahony electrified the US immigration reform debate by announcing on March 1, 2006 (Ash Wednesday), that he would instruct archdiocesan priests and lay Catholics to ignore provisions in a House-passed “enforcement only” bill (H.R. 4437) — were they to pass — that would make it a crime to assist unauthorized immigrants.”

In February 2003….bishops in the United States and Mexico released Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope, a pastoral statement that called for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Strangers No Longer built on themes established in other pastoral statements by US bishops (One Family Under God in 1995 and Unity in Diversity in 2000), annual statements by the Holy Father on migration, and a long history of Catholic teaching documents. The US bishops have conducted extensive rollout of these documents through public gatherings, within the relevant church structures, and to lay Catholics, in response to what it sees as increasingly harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation.

Kerwin provides an historical perspective: “….The church sees parallels between the last great wave of immigrants to the United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the current wave.”

Like immigrants now, newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came from different countries than their predecessors. Harsh, well-organized movements portrayed them as a threat to the nation’s security, to law-abiding citizens and to US workers. Restrictionists accused Catholics of being unassimilable due to their faith, just as some vilify Muslim-Americans today. Newcomers suffered from low wages and dangerous working conditions. Many families split apart and dissolved.

By 1920, 75 percent of US Catholics were immigrants, with recent newcomers primarily coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. In response to their needs, the church created or significantly expanded all of its defining institutions, including parishes, schools, charities, hospitals, mutual aid societies, religious communities, and fraternal and sororal groups. For these Catholics, the church tried to offer an array of educational, medical, social service, and social institutions that paralleled those of the larger society.

Since 1975, the US bishops’ conference — through its Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) division — has resettled nearly 900,000 refugees in dioceses throughout the country. The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) supports a national network of Catholic Charities and diocesan legal programs that serve nearly 400,000 immigrants per year. These programs help low-wage newcomers secure work authorization, reunify with family members, become US citizens, and gain protection from persecution. After IRCA passed [in 1986]the US bishops mobilized the country’s largest network of “qualified designated entities” — voluntary and community organizations that had permission from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to help unauthorized immigrants fill out adjustment-of-status applications.

Current developments:

In May 2005, US bishops kicked off a national campaign, “Justice for Immigrants, A Journey of Hope” (JFI). The campaign supports increasing development in immigrant-sending countries; allowing necessary, unauthorized workers to earn the right to remain (permanently) through their labor, good moral character, and payment of a fine (a proportional punishment); and expanding avenues for employment- and family-based immigration.

So far, nearly 80 dioceses have initiated local JFI campaigns to educate Catholics and the public on migration issues and to engage policymakers on the local, state, and national levels. These campaigns attempt to reach directly into parishes — the most basic unit of the Catholic Church where believers gather at least weekly — and, in many cases, have fed directly into local rallies.

In addition, dozens of bishops, national Catholic agencies, and religious communities have mobilized their communities in support of the JFI campaign through pro-immigrant statements. The JFI campaign has been explicitly linked to the Catholic Campaign Against Global Poverty which — through overseas development programs and advocacy on foreign aid, trade, and debt relief — seeks to alleviate the conditions that force many people to migrate.