President Obama said he expects Congress to introduce an immigration reform bill next month. The Los Angeles Archdiocese has played a key role in advocating for change. Before he was stripped of his duties for mishandling sex abuse cases, Cardinal Roger Mahony was a leading voice on immigration reform.
In 2010, Cardinal Mahony spoke to a crowd of thousands at the Washington mall at a rally in support for immigrant’s rights.
Mahony promised the Catholic Church would stand beside immigrants in the fight for immigration reform. This was just one of many examples of his bringing his activism out to the street.
“Cardinal Mahony was very clear that he was going to use the pulpit and he was going to use the airwaves,” says Angelica Salas, the executive director of CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “He was going to march with us, he was going to use whatever public space there was in order to get the word out.”
Salas says that Mahony’s successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, might not be speaking at rallies as much and certainly maintains a lower public profile, but he is very active in pushing for immigration reform.
“I was in a meeting with President Obama a couple of weeks ago at the White House with religious leaders,” Gomez says. “And we all came out of the meeting with the conviction that now is the time and that the president is committed to work on immigration reform. So we are enthusiastic about the possibility of an immigration reform law soon.”
Gomez is the chairman of the Immigration Committee of US Catholic Bishops, which makes him a key voice on immigration matters not only in the church, but also in Washington as well. Both he and Salas agree that this is a moment when there’s a real chance to see an actual immigration reform bill come out of Congress, especially with the President as committed as he is.
“Lots of things have also changed even within the Obama administration,” Salas says. “In 2010, I had the opportunity to meet with President Obama in much the same way that Archbishop Gomez did and at that time we were in a very different situation in which for the first time we were seeing deportations exploding. Something we were shocked to our core about. And so it was a different kind of engagement with our president."
But since then, she has seen a change in tone from Washington.
"Since that time and after a lot of pushing, he has provided deferred action for childhood arrivals, (Obama) has opened up opportunities for prosecutorial discretion," Salas says. "I think that his entire team at every single level is now committed to making sure that immigration reform gets across the finish line.”
Public opinion on immigration has also shifted substantially since Mahony took up the cause more than 20 years ago. Now, according to a recent USC/LA Times poll, about two-thirds of Californians support providing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. According to Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant, Gomez’s low key lobbying might be a better fit for the times.
“Stylistically, it may be time for a less activist role and more of a practical approach towards crafting this legislation,” Madrid says. “It gets you a lot farther in the end.”
A final difference between Mahony and Gomez is the fact that Gomez was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico. Gomez says this gives him a real insight into the plight of immigrants.
“The fact that I’m an immigrant allows me to see what people go through when they come to this country,” he says. “In my case, it’s a little different since my family was here in what is the United States since 1805, in what is now Texas. So I have family on both sides of the border.”
But look behind the stylistic differences, and both Gomez and Mahony are very much in sync when it comes to the changes they’re looking for in immigration laws.
“We know that we have around 10, 12 million undocumented people in the United States,” Gomez points out. “And we need to find a way to allow them to become legal and then residents and then citizens.”
Gomez also acknowledges the need to address Republican concerns over border controls, but he says it’s also important to look beyond the borders.
“Part of our suggestion is to try to really study the roots of the problem,” Gomez says. “So finding a way to help the Latin American countries and other countries solve the economic crisis they have and provide more jobs is essential.”
If comprehensive immigration reform passes, Salas says that other religious groups will have played a part, but the Catholic Church played the lead role.
“I would say the standard bearers have been the Catholic Church,” she says. “You have to give the Catholic Church credit for also being in this modern version of the fight for immigrant rights, for being very much in the front and center for a long time.”
Gomez says he will devote his energies to making sure the church as a whole and the L.A. Archdiocese remain central in the push for immigration reform. And it may be necessary, for even if a comprehensive reform bill comes out of the Senate, it will encounter stiff resistance in the House of Representatives.
And there, finding a bipartisan solution, may require more muscle from the Catholic Church, and an act of God.