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Catholic Church Highlights the Human Side of Immigration Reform

From a Mass at the U.S.-Mexican border to a papal visit with the president, Church officials are stepping up their efforts to bring about changes to immigration policy consistent with Catholic teaching

NOGALES, Ariz. — 

When Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston celebrated a Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border on April 1, he reflected on the lawyer who tried to publicly antagonize Jesus by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” That “marvelous question,” the cardinal said, set the stage for one of the “most beautiful parables in the Gospel,” the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Backdropped by the closely set brownish planks of steel that stretch as high as 30 feet into the air and separate the U.S. from Mexico, the cardinal proposed his own answer to the lawyer’s question, echoing the parable.

“We know that the border is lined with unmarked graves of thousands who have died alone and nameless,” he said. “[...] Sometimes they are called ‘illegal aliens’ — an expression that makes them sound like Martians. But they are our neighbors. They are our brothers and sisters.”

The point from Cardinal O’Malley’s homily sums up the Church’s ongoing message on immigration reform: that the issue is not about numbers, elections, money or political platforms, but about human beings.

The Mass at the border highlighted commitment to the message, at least from Church leadership. Cardinal O’Malley was joined in Nogales, Ariz., by seven of his brother bishops. Others, such as Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, sent statements of support.

The bishops in attendance placed a wreath at the border, paralleling Pope Francis’ gesture on his first trip outside of Rome, when he placed a wreath in the sea at Lampedusa in memory of the thousands of migrants who have died trying to get to Europe from Africa or the Middle East.


‘Stop the Bleeding’

Despite widespread consensus that the current immigration system is broken, there’s growing doubt that anything will happen in Congress before the July 4 recess, meaning nothing will happen legislatively until after upcoming elections.

Both inside and outside the Church, some advocates are urging President Barack Obama to at least slow the rate of deportations being authorized by his administration; some 2 million people have been deported during his presidency, significantly more than the number under George W. Bush.

“The bishops feel there has to be something done to stop the bleeding, if you will,” Kevin Appleby, director of migration and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

A March 26 letter from the USCCB Committee on Migration urged the Department of Homeland security to consider seven steps in answer to Obama’s announcement two weeks earlier that he is looking into how he can “conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.”

The steps recommended by the bishops include “to more broadly utilize prosecutorial discretion to protect immigrant families and communities” and to phase out the Secure Communities program, which links police forces across the nation to immigration databases, effectively meaning a police officer anywhere can be a sort of border-patrol guard. The bishops called for the end of policies that exclude due-process protections and asked that those who are deported at least be given their belonging, and be left in a safe area during daylight. Children who are deported should be returned to families, the bishops said.

“[A]s pastors who witness the human consequences of our broken immigration system every day, we are deeply troubled by the division of families caused by current immigration-enforcement policies,” wrote Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, the committee’s chairman, who signed the letter. “In this regard, we urge you to take steps within your authority to limit these deportations in a way that protects immigrants who are no threat to the community and who might otherwise benefit from immigration-reform legislation and their families.”’

The policy changes reflect the Church’s foundational principle in immigration advocacy: As Cardinal O’Malley put it, the immigrants aren’t extraterrestrials. Advocates see the need for “humanizing the issue,” acknowledged Appleby. But alluding to the politically charged nature of the discussion, he wondered, “How do you tell the stories through the din of the shouting?”


Papal Influence?

Obama presumably was aware of the issue this weekend, when the #Not1MoreDeportation campaign staged rallies in front of the White House and at immigration detention centers in 40 cities around the country.

But the president also heard about the human dimension of immigration reform directly two weeks ago from Pope Francis himself.

The president visited the Pope at the Vatican on March 27. The day before, news broke that the Holy Father had promised a little girl he would talk to the president about immigration reform, and the press statement from the Vatican after the meeting affirmed that he kept his promise.

The girl was 10-year-old Jersey Vargas, who greeted the Pope at the March 26 general audience, bringing with her some 1,500 letters from children like herself, who are living separated from their parents due to U.S. deportation policy.

“I needed to meet Pope Francis to explain my situation and that of my father to him,” Vargas said. “Right now, he is in another state in the U.S. He has a deportation order, and I am very afraid that they will deport him.”

Jersey’s father, Mario Vargas, was in fact released and reunited with his daughter when she arrived home from Rome, though his future is uncertain. Of course, most of the writers of the 1,500 letters have not enjoyed a similar development.

“When I met the Pope, I was very happy because he blessed me and told me he would talk to President Obama,” Jersey said. She added that she hoped the president would listen to the Pope’s “very important message.”

“It is unfair that [President Obama] gets to be with his [daughters], while we have to be separated from our fathers,” she said.

The lawyer for Mario Vargas, Alex Galvez, is hopeful that he will eventually get permanent-resident status in the States. And he says young Jersey is “becoming the face of immigration reform.”

“The American culture, the American fabric, the American dream, the American story ... everything that America is made out of all starts with the immigrant dream,” the lawyer reflected. “America needs more Jerseys. Do we want people like Jersey Vargas here in the U.S.? I would say Yes, easy. It’s not even a question. And she’s a product of immigrant parents who’ve done nothing but be here [and] work hard as a family, trying to reach the American dream.”

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