Let’s hear it for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I’m not even remotely joking. Catholic bishops, both in the U.S. and abroad, have taken a justified beating in the press of late (including in this magazine) over their defensive and self-serving efforts to explain the Vatican hierarchy’s role in the sex-abuse crisis that continues to roil Europe. But, as my grandfather used to say, when they’re right, they’re right. On the question of immigration reform and, in particular, on Arizona’s new law S.B. 1070, the bishops aren’t just right. They’re righteous.
The law, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed last week, essentially allows local police to investigate—and then detain or trigger deportation proceedings against—any person about whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” of residing in Arizona without documentation. (Just how law-enforcement officers will do this without violating the protections guaranteed by the Constitution will be the focus of forthcoming lawsuits.) After the bill passed, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who grew up in Los Angeles—a city where half the residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin—vented on his blog. Careful parsing has characterized bishops’ public statements of late; here Mahony lets it rip. S.B. 1070 is “the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law,” he wrote—a product of “totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder, and consume public resources.” He went on to compare the legislation to incipient Nazism.
Diverse religious groups are condemning the law and calling for federal immigration reform, but Catholic prelates have taken the lead. In March the bishops of Arizona wrote publicly against S.B. 1070, saying it could “be detrimental to public safety and ... divide families.” Around that time, Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo met with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, in hopes of persuading the Republican to take up a legislative fight on behalf of immigrants’ rights. “We’ve been very concerned with how we treat human beings,” says Bishop John Wester, chair of the Committee on Migration and Refugee Services for the USCCB. “We believe that human beings are suffering and being put in an untenable position because of our broken legal system. With S.B. 1070, those problems are made worse. This is very scary to us.” A theology that upholds “the dignity of human life,” he explains, respects all life. It doesn’t criminalize the desire to feed one’s family. It doesn’t make certain people second-class citizens.
The bishops take a perverse pride in maintaining minority positions on social questions—women’s ordination, civil unions, embryonic-stem-cell research—and surely the mishandled sex-abuse fiasco further mutes their moral voice. On immigration, though, their refusal to see morality as a popularity contest serves them well. No issue threatens to divide Americans or awaken slumbering racism more than immigration. Polling is hard to come by, but according to Rasmussen, 60 percent of Americans support the Arizona law. Reminding Christians of their responsibility to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger is just the kind of bridge-building rhetoric both sides need to hear.
Theological arguments aside, the bishops also have a practical stake in fighting the law and supporting federal immigration reform. The number of Hispanics in America has grown from about 6 million in 1960 to about 50 million today. Nearly 70 percent of Hispanics in America are Catholic. With whites abandoning Catholicism in droves, a growing, vital American church depends on Hispanic families. When those families are terrorized by irregular enforcement of federal immigration laws, it’s in the bishops’ best interests to help them.
They may be bruised from their recent defeat in the health-care wars, but the bishops are arming again—this time with new allies. Bishop Wester says he has met with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leading Democratic proponent of immigration reform, and together they’re shopping for bipartisan support. Has Wester found a Republican Bart Stupak, a centrist who might take the high road on behalf of the tired and poor? “In a word, no.” Wester answered. “I have talked to some who would be willing to vote for immigration reform if it was balanced and had a chance, but they won’t stake their political careers on it if it has no chance.” More evidence, if any were needed, that in an election year, justice takes a back seat to politics.
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor. Her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife is due out from Harper in March. Become a fan of Lisa on facebook.