TUCSON, Ariz. – In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has taken a more active role in pushing for an immigration overhaul that would legalize the millions of men, women and children who are in the country illegally. Clergy have preached from the pulpit about welcoming “the stranger.” Church leaders have staged fasting and prayer events to spotlight the plight of the immigrant.
They’ve even created prayers for “safe migration” to be said out loud by the congregation during Mass – all in hopes of persuading parishioners to support what they call a humanitarian cause.
However, it’s unclear how the message has been translated from the church pews to the halls of power in Washington.
That’s why church leaders are taking a more aggressive approach starting today at Masses held throughout the country.
Unlike a “Justice for Immigrants” program conducted in 2006-2007, this time church leaders are urging Catholics to call, write and email their congressional representatives, even providing prewritten letters and electronic postcards. Congress returns from its summer break Monday, and although an immigration bill passed the Senate, it faces tough opposition, mainly from Republican lawmakers in the House.
Kevin Appleby, director of immigration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the latest immigration overhaul campaign is larger, bolder and a more unified national effort than in years past.
“We learned some lessons from 2006, 2007,” Appleby said. “You really have to mobilize constituents and voters in order to succeed.”
Polls show that there is broad support among Catholics for immigration reform, Appleby said. The challenge is getting those people to take action.
“Translating the support to action is the goal,” he said.
Today, Catholic dioceses across the country will start holding events about the need for an immigration overhaul, Appleby said.
The conference’s Committee on Migration is urging bishops throughout the country to address immigration at Mass, providing them with talking points and suggestions for homilies, bulletin inserts and pulpit announcements – all available via the Internet.
“We’ve urged the bishops to focus on this time frame,” Appleby said of the month of September. “It’s a critical time. We need to get the Senate bill through to the House. It needs a push. We’re doing everything right now to keep the pressure up.”
In June, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally. The bill also calls for a $46 billion border security package. However, it remains unclear whether the bill will ever be taken up in the House.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the Committee on Migration, is strongly urging all priests in his diocese to focus on immigration reform in today’s Mass. Other church leaders have staged pilgrimages and some have met or plan to meet with decision-makers in Washington to press their cause.
The Catholic Church isn’t the only denomination pushing for a revamping of immigration laws. Evangelicals, Episcopalians, Baptists and other religious groups have launched similar campaigns.
However, some parishioners may not take well to politicking from the pulpit. Appleby acknowledged that not all Catholics will be on board.
“It certainly can be a divisive issue,” he said. “One of the goals of the campaign is to educate Catholics on the issue.”
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson said he will not focus today’s Mass on immigration because he believes the timing is premature.
He said debate over military action in Syria and the looming budget battle will probably take precedence over immigration for lawmakers after they return from recess.
Kicanas plans to appeal to his congregants and join forces with leaders outside the Catholic Church to push lawmakers on an immigration overhaul sometime in October or November.
“It can’t just be a religious voice, but all of us together have to stand together and say, ‘Now is the time,’ ” Kicanas said.
“Arizona is in the center of this whole immigration question. … We can’t let this moment pass again. We can’t let this opportunity pass, and we need to encourage others – help people speak up.”