Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Immigration Debate Calls For ‘Prophetic Courage’

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 8, 2007

In the spring of last year, Georgia lawmakers cracked down on illegal immigrants. This summer, the Cobb Country Sheriff’s Office trained its officers with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to combat unauthorized foreign workers. Federal legislation, backed by President Bush, to overhaul the country’s immigration laws went down in defeat.

But, last week, Atlanta’s Catholic spiritual leader said “prophetic courage” is needed to speak out against laws that attack the dignity of immigrants, undocumented or not.

Churchgoers need to stand up for immigrants “not because they are Catholics, but because we are Catholic,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, rebutting critics who claim the church protects illegal immigrants only because they are mostly Hispanic Catholics.

Immigrants are changing the face of the Atlanta Archdiocese, with Hispanic newcomers playing a large role in its growth in recent years. At the same time, in its backyard, local governments are implementing anti-immigrant policies.

Archbishop Gregory said too often people advocating tough immigration laws claim that resolving illegal immigration is simple.

“The solution is not simple. But the solution is grounded in the Gospel,” Archbishop Gregory said, at the Oct. 31 workshop at Holy Cross Church.

Some 200 priests, women religious, and lay parish leaders attended the workshop focused on immigration law, how parishes can prepare if federal authorities sweep up parishioners in an immigration raid, and the local climate among Catholics.

Catholic Charities Atlanta organized the workshop to dispel myths circulating about immigration.

“We hope to shed a little light where there’s too much heat,” said Susan Sullivan, director of parish and social justice ministries for the archdiocese.

Georgia’s Hispanic population in 2005 numbered 625,382, an increase of 200,000 in five years. At the same time, the state has the seventh largest group of unauthorized immigrant population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., research organization. The center does not advocate for policy issues.

The climate surrounding immigration has caused confusion that officials at Catholic Charities Atlanta wanted to refute:

• The rumor that children born here were no longer American citizens, if the infant’s parents are here illegally. False. Being born in this country automatically makes a child a citizen by constitutional right.

• Immigrants do not pay taxes. False. Illegal immigrants pay between $90 billion and $140 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. Their taxes pay into Social Security although it is unlikely they will ever see the money.

• Immigrants drain the economy. False. The net benefit of immigration to the United States is close to $10 billion a year as entrepreneurs open their own businesses and work in the service industry and other labor-intensive businesses.

Immigrants have been marked for special protection in Scripture and the church since its earliest days. Indeed, shortly after Jesus’ birth, St. Matthew’s Gospel portrays the Holy Family as immigrants in their flight into Egypt.

Popes and Catholic leaders for more than 100 years have spoken out in favor of protecting immigrants. In the late 19th century, church leaders condemned mistreatment of Irish workers new to America during a wave of anti-Catholic attacks.

In 2006, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah issued a pastoral letter that condemned immigration reform bills that restrict health care, education and basic social services for illegal immigrants.

“Immigrants are the strangers for whom God seeks protection. They are not statistics or ‘talking points,’ but persons who seek a better life through their own hard work and sacrifice,” wrote the bishops.

But church leaders need to do more to convince the faithful. Many Catholics split with the bishops on the immigration issue.

A March poll by LeMoyne College, a Catholic college in Syracuse, N.Y., and Zogby International found 55 percent of 1,522 Roman Catholics in a national poll believe the United States should begin a program to allow undocumented immigrants to earn permanent residency. The question was asked as part of an ongoing national polling effort to track the views of American Catholics.

Many at the workshop spoke out of frustration about the fear among their Hispanic parishioners, with people facing regular police roadblocks, about barriers between Anglo Catholics and immigrants during special liturgies, and even concerns about getting married in the church as immigrants fear getting arrested applying for a civil marriage license.

Father Daniel Stack, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cartersville, was passionate about protecting his Hispanic parishioners. He suggested Catholics organize mass arrests to bring attention to what he believes is unfair law enforcement.

“Georgia has a love affair with racism that just won’t go away. Let’s make it as stupid as it is. Let’s go get arrested,” he said about the roadblocks and other ways police nab people on immigration violations. “They are afraid. I’ve got a lot of construction workers that work in Cobb County,” he said.

Nadia Seidler, a member of St. Jude Church in Sandy Springs, said barriers have been erected between the Brazilian community and the Anglo community in her parish. The English-speaking community does not come to events organized by the immigrants, said Seidler, a native of Brazil.

“Look, we are all Catholics, we are brothers and sisters in the faith,” Seidler said, adding that multilingual Masses appear to upset some in the English-speaking community.

The challenge as a church is to reach out to each other for mutual understanding, she said.

Maria Galvan, a secretary at Smyrna’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, said police have stopped her car three times in the past four months at roadblocks.

The parish, which is majority Hispanic, is concerned, with as many as 30 parishioners in jail after being stopped by police in roadblocks, which become more serious immigration violations when federal immigration records are checked. People remain in jail because they cannot afford bail, she said.

However, the workshop boosted her spirits. Said Galvan, “I’m encouraged because we are not fighting alone.”