The Church Isn’t Going Away on Immigration Reform

Father Clete Kiley and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City talk with men at the Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, Mexico. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Father Clete Kiley and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City talk with men at the Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, Mexico. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Congress is back in session after their summer break, and we can expect national attention to turn once again toward comprehensive immigration reform. Particular focus will be on Speaker John Boehner and the House of Representatives to see if they can get a bill passed before the new year.

The Catholic Church has been unafraid to call political leaders to task on this critical issue. This clearly is a top-line priority for the Vatican. Pope Francis’s first pastoral trip outside of Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa in July 2013, where hundreds have died while trying to immigrate into the country. There Pope Francis lambasted the “globalization of indifference,” which characterizes a society that lacks compassion for immigrants.

His words that day should ring in our ears: “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion — suffering with — others … Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. ‘Has any one wept?’ Today has anyone wept in our world?”

In the first eight months of the year, the American bishops have also put this at the top of their agenda. They already celebrated the Eucharist at the U.S.-Mexico border and visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill to lift up the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

The April trip to the border was particularly poignant. During Mass, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and his brother bishops and priests reached across the border fence to distribute the host to Mexicans on the other side. The theological message that the bishops communicated was unmistakable. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian life. In the Eucharist, God’s love through Jesus Christ is made fully present to us. To distribute the Eucharist through the fence shows that there are no borders in Jesus Christ. In him, no one is excluded and no one is left behind.

But make no mistake, there also was a political message communicated to our leaders in Washington: the Catholic Church isn’t going away on immigration reform.

Here’s how the political situation boils down. Nearly a year ago, the United States Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill that was supported by the Catholic Church. While the bill protected the border, it also provided a pathway to citizenship for aspiring Americans who are undocumented. Speaker of the House John Boehner has said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor unless a majority of his Republican colleagues support it. Under this governing provision, the bill is unlikely to be voted on before this session of Congress expires in January 2015. If that comes to be the case, the whole process will have to begin again. But if the Speaker were to change his mind, the bill would almost certainly pass, since almost every Democrat supports it.

It’s widely known that as a Catholic, Speaker Boehner personally supports comprehensive immigration reform. But he fears the political consequences of such a decision. He saw his top deputy, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor lose his primary election earlier this summer in a campaign where his opponent highlighted Cantor’s support for reform. And it’s very possible that if Mr. Boehner were to allow a vote to occur, he would be ousted as Speaker of the House by his Republican colleagues.

A national coalition of Catholic leaders calling on Speaker Boehner to act put it this way: “[the current situation] is immoral and shameful. The eyes of our God  — who hungers for justice and commands us to welcome the stranger and bind the wounds of those left by the side of the road  — are on us. … As Catholics who share your commitment to the sanctity of life in the womb, we must not be complicit in the suffering of migrants dying in the shadows.”

There’s no chance that Mr. Boehner will change his mind before the November 4 mid-term elections, but when Congress comes back for the “lame-duck” session this winter, the Speaker of the House has the rare chance of being a modern American political hero by risking his political future for the sake of our nation’s future. Educated by Jesuit and Marianist priests in Cincinnati, Mr. Boehner knows that if he’s willing to take that step of courage, he will have a Church that will walk with him the entire way.