By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2012
Some 200 national immigration leaders surveyed the landscape of immigration reform at the federal and state level during a three-day Catholic conference held in Atlanta Dec. 3-5.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory told the leaders that while the federal government recently acted to offer young people brought into the country as children some relief by postponing deportation and granting them work permits, the Catholic bishops will continue to advocate for comprehensive reform with more opportunities, particularly for families and those already living and working in the United States.
The bishops “will resist” any proposal that offers undocumented persons legal status without a path to become citizens, he said in a keynote address.
“We will argue against the creation of a permanent underclass in this country, where certain parts of our population do not have the rights that others do,” said Archbishop Gregory, as the crowd applauded.
Drawing a connection to Atlanta’s native son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement, the archbishop said history has shown the “disastrous results” when people are denied their full rights.
“Our nation has been down this road before, with disastrous results. As we know from our nation’s history, many persons, including Dr. King, have fought and died so that all persons can enjoy the full rights of citizenship. We cannot forsake this principle for the purpose of political expediency,” Archbishop Gregory said.
A second priority of the U.S. bishops, he said, is to ensure that “family reunification remains the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration policy.”
Many families with some U.S.-citizen members are divided by the current policies and others applying for family reunification wait for years, he said. The system needs to ensure families remain together and the immigration process moves quicker, he said. And reform should not replace a family-based system with a system that “places value on a person’s resume over a person’s family ties.”
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure to increase visas for foreigners who earned advanced graduate degrees in the U.S. for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It did away with the diversity visa system.
The archbishop said the bishops “accept and support reasonable enforcement measures” for the integrity of the nation’s borders and to protect the common good of citizens. However, “such measures must respect basic human rights and dignity” and include due process protections for immigrants and their families, he said.
Too often over the past 25 years, the government has “pursued an enforcement-only immigration policy,” he said. “We have witnessed the results of this policy in the inhumane detention conditions in which many immigrants are held in this country; the separation of parents from their children due to deportation; and the deaths of thousands of our brothers and sisters in the American desert,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory also linked the need for immigration reform and religious freedom.
He said a number of states, including Georgia, enacted laws that criminalized actions of “all citizens who, in the exercise of their religious teachings, want to assist those in need.”
Federal courts intervened to prevent enforcement of these laws, but “we must continue our vigilance and our advocacy against legislation which demeans human beings and interferes with religious freedom.”
And during the Year of Faith, Archbishop Gregory said advocates should turn to the Eucharist and prayer.
“The work you do is difficult, draining and frustrating at times, and you need the nourishment of prayer to sustain yourselves,” he said.
The Catholic perspective on immigrant people is rooted in the theological truth that all human beings are made in the image of God and retain that dignity, regardless of their circumstances. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to welcome the alien and stranger, and in the New Testament, Christians are told they encounter Jesus himself in the face of the stranger, Archbishop Gregory said.
“As bishops and as a Church, we do not seek immigration reform based on some political calculus of how many votes can be garnered by one political party or the other,” he said. “We seek justice for all migrating peoples because they are our brothers and sisters and are made in God’s image.”
The conference was organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. It was titled “Migration Policy and Advocacy in 2013 and Beyond: New Challenges and New Opportunities.”
Workshops covered a variety of topics, from recent federal court rulings and the future of immigration reform to reaction from state leaders to the two-year reprieve from deportation with President Barack Obama’s federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Conference-goers talked about glimmers of hope to rewrite immigration laws following the election, but also said vigilance was needed.
Pat Chivers, director of communications for the Atlanta Archdiocese, said she hopes immigration reform becomes one of priorities of the incoming Congress and the Obama administration. Chivers said the political parties learned how “powerful the Hispanic community is in voting and contributing to the political process.” That awareness “has definitely brought immigration reform to the forefront of issues to be addressed this year,” she said.
Indeed, the president won his re-election with nearly 70 percent of the Latino vote. President Obama has pledged to push for revised immigration laws.
Chivers said Catholics need only remember their own history and faith to empathize with the plight of immigrants.
“We are all children of God and can continue to grow in our faith as we see Jesus in each person, remembering the immigrant experience of our forefathers. Jesus calls us to walk with others on the journey of hope,” she said.
Sister Marie Lucey, director of advocacy at the Franciscan Action Network, said she hoped the president “holds true to his word” to make immigration reform a priority.
“There is a lot of hope in the immigrant community that something is going to happen. We have to be very vigilant about what form immigration reform will take,” said Sister Lucey, who works in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
Paulette Croteau, from Tennessee, attended to learn more so she could share the issues with her parish. She’s the director of religious education at her small church, with a sizable majority of Hispanics.
“I see fear. I see hostility. My heart cries because my Hispanic brothers and sisters are getting a raw deal,” she said.
Immigration has boosted Georgia’s population, along with bringing new Catholics into church pews.
Nationally, an estimated 11 million people live in the United States without authorization.
There are approximately 856,000 Hispanics in Georgia, or about 9 percent of the state population, based on 2010 numbers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And about 425,000 people living here in 2010 were undocumented immigrants, according to the center’s estimates.
The newcomers have brought diversity to the Catholics Church here. The Atlanta Archdiocese estimates there are about 1 million Catholics in north and middle Georgia. More than 40 percent of them are Hispanics, according to church statistics. Some 21 percent of all Masses in the archdiocese are celebrated in Spanish each weekend and 62 percent of parishes celebrate Mass in two languages every weekend.