L.A. Cardinal Mahony Attacks Immigration Bill

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Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles says an immigration bill under consideration in Congress would put serious limits on the church's ability to serve illegal immigrants. He called for priests to defy the law if it passes. Liane Hansen speaks about the issue with Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the United States Conference of Bishops.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week, Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, delivered an Ash Wednesday Sermon that could set him on a collision course with Congress. Mahony objects to the immigration legislation currently under consideration, which he says will restrict the church's ability to minister to the needy. In December, Cardinal Mahony, a long-time advocate for humane treatment of immigrants both legal and illegal, wrote a stinging letter to President Bush.

Referring to the recently passed House bill, he wrote, One could interpret this bill to suggest that any spiritual and pastoral service given to any person requires proof of legal residence. Are we to stop every person coming to Holy Communion and first ask them to produce proof of legal residence? In his Wednesday address, he went further, pledging to defy the law if it is passed by Congress.

Joining us to discuss the issue is Kevin Appleby, Director of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He's in the studio. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. KEVIN APPLEBY (Director, Office of Migration and Refugee Policy): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: First of all, what was your reaction to Cardinal Mahony's Ash Wednesday address?

Mr. APPLEBY: Well, I thought it was a reaction that demonstrated that the Cardinal feels very strongly about this bill, that this bill is an overreach by the Congress, that it goes in the opposite direction of where our nation should be going in terms of immigration, and it demonstrates how extreme that the legislation is, and that the Cardinal feels strongly that sometimes when there's legislation that's passed that is unjust, there is just cause to defy the law.

And as far as U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops goes, we're very strongly opposed to this law as well. We think it goes in the wrong direction. Basically the answer to our illegal immigration problems are build more detention centers, build another wall, block us from the rest of the world, increase penalties and supposedly the issue will be solved. Well, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and Cardinal Mahony have another solution to the problem which we think will effectively remedy it, and also help us build upon our diversity as a nation of immigrants.

HANSEN: What is his solution?

Mr. APPLEBY: The Cardinal believes that we need to look at the issue comprehensively, that we need to look at every aspect of our immigration system in order to solve the immigration crisis that we face. That would include looking at our legal immigration system as well as our enforcement system, and in the legal immigration area we need to look at several aspects. First of all, we need to look at how we're going to address the 11 million undocumented that are currently in the country, that are in the shadows, they're in an underground economy, that are working in important industries that help our economy grow, and we do not recognize any of their rights, we do not extend them the protection of the law, and we believe that there should be a program that allows them to come out of the shadows.

We think this is the only way that we're going to get a hold of who is in the country working without papers, and we think it's good policy because it's pro-economy because it stabilizes our workforce and it ensures employers that you're going to have a stable workforce.

And what's especially important to bishops is it's pro-family, is that it allows immigrant families to stay together.

HANSEN: Cardinal Mahony has been a strong defender of immigrant rights since he was ordained in 1962, but church's, Catholic church's advocacy goes back a lot further than that. Give us a little bit of context about how the Catholic church's position on immigration, both legal and illegal has evolved over the years.

Mr. APPLEBY: Well, it's multi-faceted. First of all, in the United States we are reflective of our nation as an immigrant nation. Our church has grown as the country has grown with the wide-range of immigrant populations that have come over the years. Italians, Irish, even those some Eastern Europe recently, Vietnamese from Southeast Asia have helped grown our church and made it a culturally diverse church that's reflective of our nation, so we're really in concert with the nation as an immigrant nation.

Secondly, it's part of our gospel mandate. In the gospels Jesus calls upon us to welcome the stranger because in the face of the stranger we see the face of Christ, and it's part of our mission, it's part of who we are as Catholic to welcome those who are disadvantaged or downtrodden or repressed. But I think probably the most compelling reason the church is involved in this debate, is because it's a moral issue. We've seen in the debate to date that the issue has been dissected and analyzed in terms of economics, in terms of laws and legality, in terms of social impact and cultural impact.

But ultimately it's a humanitarian issue and it's an issue that has moral implications. So the church is obliged and is committed to speaking out to point out these moral implications.

HANSEN: Isn't it a bit of a stretch though to say that these bills are going to get in the way of providing, you know, not just social services, but spiritual services to churchgoers, as Cardinal Mahony seems to imply:

Mr. APPLEBY: Well, the plain reading of the language suggests that anyone who assists an undocumented alien, knowingly or should have known they are undocumented, to remain in the United States would be subject to a five-year criminal penalty. Now, that can be broadly interpreted. You can be assisting someone who might be undocumented with a cup of soup, with any sort of food or meal, a shelter for the night. And it could be interpreted by a judge and by prosecutors that you're assisting them to remain in the United States.

Again, pastoral services, if we're providing pastoral care to immigrants who may be undocumented, whether that be allowing them to come to mass, providing them other types of advice and spiritual counseling, again, a judge or a prosecutor could interpret that as saying we're assisting them to remain in the United States because we're welcoming them into our spiritual community.

So you know, although the proponents say, well, that's not going to happen, this isn't designed for churches, for other humanitarian workers or Good Samaritans, we can't take for granted that there aren't prosecutors, there aren't those out there who wouldn't want to come after humanitarian workers and churches on this issue.

And I would like to add that the current law includes such words as transport, harbor, conceal, which is what smugglers do by definition. My question is, why would the proponents want to extend that to assist? Who are they capturing by extending the definition? They're not capturing, in our view, more smugglers. They're capturing people who are there providing acts of mercy to people who come who are in need.

HANSEN: Kevin Appleby is the Director of Migration and Refugee Policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. APPLEBY: Thank you.

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