Catholic Bishops Launch New Push for Immigration Reform, Pathway to Citizenship

By Christopher Neefus | January 8, 2010 | 5:44am EST

The Most Reverend John C. Wester, Bishop of Salt Lake City (Photo from Diocese of Salt Lake City Web site)

( – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will push to get immigration-reform legislation enacted in 2010. The group has voiced support for one Democrat-sponsored bill that grants a pathway to citizenship for people who came to this country illegally.
In a conference call Wednesday with reporters, Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester said, “It is our view, and that of others, that the American public, including the 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.”
Wester, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Migration, said the church will prod lawmakers take action on the issue, beginning with a postcard campaign to members of Congress and prayer vigils across the country.
On Dec. 23, the Catholic bishops also wrote a letter of support to Rep. Luiz Gutierrez (D-Ill.) for a bill he co-sponsored -- the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (H.R. 4321).  The bishops called the bill “an important first step in the legislative process.”
The nearly-700-page bill includes an “earned legalization” program, more often referred to as a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. It would allow about 100,000  unemployed immigrants into the country each year in an attempt to reduce the backlog of visa applications. It also would exempt immediate relatives from the annual cap on visas. Gutierrez said immigrants have born the brunt of blame for various domestic problems, especially unemployment, and he quoted the Bible to describe their plight.
“In fact,” Rep. Gutierrez said on Dec. 15 when he introduced his bill, “we all have learned something from our religious leaders, who have reminded us of these words from the good book:  ‘You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’; but I say unto you, whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’”

The quotation, which varies slightly by translation, appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
“I believe our immigrant community has turned so many cheeks that our heads are spinning like tops,” Gutierrez concluded.
Despite the religious bent to the latest immigration-reform push, a recent poll from Zogby International shows that Catholics are largely out of step with the views of their leaders on the issue. Conducted in the last two weeks of November 2009 and released in December, the Zogby poll shows that Catholics believe there are too many illegal immigrants in the United States and oppose a pathway to citizenship.
Zogby asked: “Which approach do you prefer to deal with illegal immigrants in this country? Statement A: Enforcing the law and causing them to return home over time. Statement B: Granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship to most illegal immigrants.”
A majority – 64 percent – of Catholic respondents preferred statement A, compared with the 24 percent who chose statement B.
In the same poll, Catholics were asked whether the 38 million legal and illegal immigrants and the 1.5 million more entering the U.S. were “too high, too low, or just right?” Sixty-nine percent said too high, while just 4 percent said too low, and 14 percent said just right.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy at USCCB, confirmed that the bishops thought the Gutierrez bill was a “good blueprint”--and they took issue with Zogby’s methodology.
“Well, I mean, we think it’s a good blueprint for moving forward. It has all the elements that we think are needed in any bill--a legalization piece, a family piece, and a worker program piece,” Appleby told
He said the Zogby poll had flaws, and pointed to other numbers that would support the position of the bishops. “First of all, their poll is a Web-based poll, so many statisticians will tell you that it’s already skewed. Secondly, the questions are framed in a way that leads to a certain answer—it pitches it in a way that someone’s going to answer it that way,” he said.
“If you look at the American National Election (Study), which would be an honest in-the-middle, I would think, it says that 61 percent of Catholics believe that there could be increased immigration or immigration would be at normal levels, and that 56 percent of Catholics would support a path to citizenship.”
The American National Election Study, based at the University of Michigan, conducted its survey in 2008.
The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a non-partisan policy group, contends that the Gutierrez bill is out of touch with prevailing public sentiment:
Asked where the bill in question fell on the political spectrum, CIS Director of Policy Studies Jessica Vaughan said, “I don’t think it even falls on the spectrum of bills that Americans would consider to be reasonable immigration reform.
“It is a massive expansion of immigration--an amnesty for just about everyone, a decimation of immigration law enforcement, and creation of unnecessary temporary worker programs—um—did I miss anything?
“The reality is that this is not something that most Americans would support.”
Vaughan said the disparity was no surprise. “Some other studies in the past have shown that the leadership of not just the Catholic church but all the other mainstream religious groups hold very different views on immigration from those in the pews.” That’s true, she said, “not only in big religion but also in academia, in the business world, and other sectors of American society -- there is a huge gap between the way elites view this issue and the way regular Americans view it.”
Her colleague, CIS Director of Research Stephen Camarota, has examined contrasting views on immigration between religious leaders and their congregations. He said Catholic bishops and their followers are just interpreting the faith differently. “I think that what it represents is kind of different perspectives on Christian teaching,” he told
“For the bishops and the leaders, they tend to have a lot of empathy for illegal immigrants here and people who want to come in the future,” Camarota said. “That’s where their humanitarian concerns are. The concerns of the people in the pews are much more in their community-- fellow Americans who face the job competition, who have to send their kids to overcrowded schools and so-forth.
“Each probably feels their position is consistent with Christian thought and their religious belief.”
Gutierrez, meanwhile, sided with the bishops, saying that illegal immigrants have waited years for reform, which stalled under the Bush administration. “We’ve waited long enough,” he said. “Just because we turn our cheek, doesn’t mean we should turn away from what’s right.”
See Earlier Stories:
Hispanic Congressional Caucus Starts Petition Urging Obama to Enact Amnesty (Feb. 5, 2009)
Hispanic Caucus Calls for Ending Program That Identified 100,000 Illegal Aliens, Many With Criminal Records (Friday, October 2, 2009)

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