The Catholic divide on immigration

I wondered yesterday whether the pro-immigrant outspokenness of Catholic bishops is affecting the outlook of Catholics in the parishes and pews.

I, for one, don’t see much evidence of it.

NCR’s John Allen deals with this issue directly in his coverage of this week’s Catholic conference in Washington about immigration (attended by Cardinal Egan and other cardinals). He writes:

These may be tough times in the broader culture, but Catholic activists can take comfort from the strong show of episcopal support for immigration reform this week. In addition to Mahony, Cardinals Edward Egan of New York and the emeritus Cardinal of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, spoke at the July 28-31 conference, and Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, is on hand to offer Vatican backing.

donald-kerwin_tv_29may07_21.jpg“The bishops have been prophetic on these issues,” (Donald) Kerwin (of the of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network) said (pictured). “They’ve given us immense amounts of support and cover, often at great expense in terms of the hostile reactions they’ve received.”

Observers say that opinion at the Catholic grassroots, on the other hand, is more divided. The U.S. bishops are currently planning to commission a poll of Catholic attitudes on immigration, but scattered indications suggest that Catholics aren’t much different from the general public.

In 2004, for example, voters in Arizona adopted a measure requiring proof of citizenship before anyone can register to vote or apply for public benefits. The proposition passed by 56 percent to 44, and exit polls suggest that margin included 55 percent of Arizona Catholics.

“There’s a large percentage of Catholics who need to go through a conversion process” with regard to immigration, said Martin Gutierrez of Catholic Charities in New Orleans. Guttierez said many Catholics share negative perceptions of the broader culture, such as that immigrants take jobs away from American citizens, or that they don’t want to learn English or to integrate into American society – all of which, he said, is largely false.

Soto conceded the point.

“Many Catholics have been persuaded by the more visceral arguments against immigrants offered in the media and by some politicians,” he said.

Soto expressed confidence that education can bring Catholics around, beginning with reflection on what the church is doing on the ground to welcome new arrivals.

“There’s a popular saying that you should practice what you preach. I agree with that, but I also think there’s a certain virtue in preaching what we practice,” Soto said.

“The Catholic community has been very successful in integrating and assimilating large immigrant and refugee communities. We are a counter-point to the fear and anxiety the broader society often feels,” he said. “We haven’t stopped serving immigrants and refugees in our social service agencies or in our hospitals, and people understand the reasons why we do that.”

“The virtue of our practice can help to deflect some of the more poisoned polemic that’s out there,” Soto said.