The Catholic Church and Immigration Reform

By Stephanie Block

The executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., Donald Kerwin, writes: “…the Catholic Church has played a central role in the immigrant-led protests that have swept the country. The church has encouraged parishioners to participate in the protests, offered bishops and priests as speakers, and served as an interlocutor for its newcomer members before Congress and in other public forums.” [“Immigration Reform and the Catholic Church,” May 1, 2006]

Kerwin isn’t proposing a Catholic conspiracy. He has tremendous admiration for the immigration work of the Catholic Church. What he has identified is an impressive ideological network with its hub at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In 2005, after years of pro-immigrant activism, the USCCB launched a national campaign, “Justice for Immigrants.” In turn, nearly 80 U.S. dioceses initiated local “Justice for Immigrants” campaigns that were taken into diocesan parishes.

USCCB public policy on immigration doesn’t support open borders, illegal immigration, or an amnesty package that would grant legal status to all unauthorized immigrants. However, it has created a complicated situation for itself, in which many of its allies do support these radical positions – and the Catholic Church is very generous to its allies.

Specifically, to further the work of its immigration campaign, the USCCB has devoted a significant portion of its annual Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) collection to projects that focus on “immigrant rights.”

For instance, in the 2005-2006 funding period, CCHD awarded $20,000 to San Diego’s Justice Overcoming Boundaries. Justice Overcoming Boundaries, the San Diego Catholic Diocese, and the CCHD-funded San Diego Organizing Project were primary organizers of marches in San Diego, seeking laws that would offer undocumented immigrants legal standing in the U.S.

Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrants’ rights organization in New Mexico that received $25,000 last year and $30,000 this year from CCHD grants won a Santa Fe City Council resolution to ban city employees from asking immigrants about their immigration status. It spearheaded a statewide legislative campaign to make undocumented immigrants eligible for drivers’ licenses and organized another to allow undocumented students access to in-state tuition and state financial aid. Its April 9, 2006 press release says that along with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, CCHD-funded ACORN, and Call to Action’s Pax Christi, Somos was among the supporting organizations for New Mexico’s immigration rights marches.

At least 29 CCHD grants were given to community organizations around the country, specifically to garner support for “immigrants’ rights.”

There is a second way immigration issues are carried into American Catholic parishes. CCHD has been funding “people’s organizations” since the 1970s. About a dozen of these have formed national networks of community-based and religious affiliates, affecting hundreds of congregations in cities around the United States. All are highly political and connected to left-wing activism. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), for instance, with about 55 affiliates and millions of Catholic dollars in its pockets, has been spreading liberation theology and its political opinions among Catholics for decades.

Here are some examples of IAF activism for immigration reform:

California: In Los Angeles, marches to support undocumented workers were organized by the coalition Somos América (We Are America) – of which ONE-LA/IAF, the Los Angeles branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation, is a part. With the Archdiocese of Los Angeles also a member of the coalition and ONE-LA/IAF organizing in dozens of Los Angeles parishes, the Somos América coalition is demanding that all illegal immigrants in the U.S. be naturalized.

In 2005, Wells Fargo Bank contributed $25,000 to help ONE-LA/IAF “continue to have mobile matriculas events.” The bank accepts matriculas consulares as a form of identification, enabling illegal immigrants to obtain banking services. The cards also give access to city and state services and, in 13 states, to driver licenses.

Texas: The IAF’s work in the colonias – communities of illegal squatters that are frequently established without water or basic sanitation services – is legendary. Its efforts have created infrastructures that make the colonias livable. However, it has also imported Latin American liberationism into the Catholic churches around the colonias.

The IAF of Texas is responsible for the state’s “Robin Hood Laws,” which assured education funding to illegal immigrant communities was equal to that in other communities.

In Houston, Fr. Kevin Collins, a member of the executive committee of the city’s IAF local, was instrumental in obtaining a day labor center where undocumented workers and prospective employers can pair up. “It's better for the neighborhood that workers are inside. It's better for the workers,” said Broderick Bagert, an organizer for the Metropolitan Organization, the Houston IAF affiliate.

Maryland: In Baltimore, 500 members of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a Baltimore IAF local) gathered at St. Patrick's Catholic Church to protest HR 4437, saying that the legislation “would make it a crime for others - including religious workers - to assist illegal immigrants.” [John-John Williams, “Immigration Bill Draws Criticism,” Baltimore Sun, March 20, 2006] Rhetoric was high, with members pledging, “that if they have to, they will go to jail.”

Arizona: The Arizona Interfaith Network, the collective name for the IAF’s statewide organization, urged U.S. House representatives (in a December 16, 2005 open letter) to vote against HR 4437. Its leadership organized an “Interfaith Prayer Service” at the state capitol in April 2006.

Illinois: In Chicago, St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church parish bulletin announced that on Sunday, April 23, 2006 there would be an “Interfaith Vigil” at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel: “To pray and create a memorial for those who died on the border; To campaign for legalization and citizenship for the undocumented; To campaign for undocumented students to go to college and earn legal status; To campaign to keep families together.” St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church is a member of United Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ), Chicago’s IAF affiliate.

About four hundred people gathered to pray for immigration reform on April 10 at Our Lady of Tepeyac Catholic Church, another Chicago parish. It was timed to coincide with “A Day Without Immigrants,” when immigration reform protests and rallies were scheduled around the country. As with the above “Interfaith Vigil, “ this vigil also prayed for “a path to legal residency and citizenship for undocumented workers, for a workable solution to unite families divided by the border, and a way for any student raised in the United States to earn legal residency and qualify for student aid.”

Furthermore, it utilized the standard liberationist technique of conscientizing and legitimating a political position by associating it with a cherished religious image: at the 12th station, where the worshipper is to meditate on the death of Jesus, the congregation prayed “for all those who have died trying to cross the border in search of a better life in the United States.” [Michelle Martin, “Immigration reform efforts, prayers continue,” Catholic New World, Archdiocesan paper of Chicago, April 16, 2006] Our Lady of Tepeyac Catholic Church is also a member of UPAJ.

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