An intriguing new front was opened in the fight for immigration reform on April 1 on the border between Arizona and Mexico. Americans were reminded in powerful fashion that illegal immigrants are people first, which trumps their status as "illegals," to borrow that defamatory phrase from its users. Any solution to this complex issue must have this "people first" reality as its foundation.
On that date, nine America prelates, led by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, celebrated a Mass in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. The photos of Cardinal O'Malley and Cardinal Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona serving Communion to Mexican Catholics through openings in the security fence were extraordinarily moving. Cardinal O'Malley later told The Boston Globe's John Allen Jr. that defending the rights of immigrants is "another pro-life issue."
Cardinal O'Malley is close to Pope Francis, sharing among other things the pope's disdain for high-living Catholic officials and his determination to help the poor and challenge the rich, so the Boston cardinal's words resonate. Neither the cardinal nor the pope will shift from the Catholic Church's anti-abortion position, but they will both advocate expanding the church's definition of "pro-life" to go beyond fetuses. In the case of illegal immigrants, that means acknowledging their humanity and the difficulties of their lives.
Illegal immigrants are stereotyped as thieves of American jobs -- an assumption that took a hit last year in the Southern states where toughened immigration laws nearly ruined their farming industry -- or as, in the words of Republican Iowa Congressman Steve King, drug mules with "calves the size of cantaloupes." Repre sentative King was referring specifically to young immigrants. Cardinal O'Malley and his Catholic colleagues received a different impression during their three-day visit to the border this month.
According to The Globe's Allen, the prelates heard from, among others, a 13-year-old Mexican girl whose sister has been detained by U.S. authorities for six months and deprived of contact with family or legal counsel. They talked to a Mexican woman whose son was shot to death by U.S. Border Patrol agents. She has received no explanation for the deadly shooting. The nine Catholic officials laid a wreath at the border to remember the estimated 6,000 people who have died trying to cross into America.
Cardinal O'Malley called for an end to the "deportation mania" which divides families and causes misery. President Obama, portrayed as soft on immigration by his opponents, has actually escalated deportations since the era of President George W. Bush, who was a strong advocate of reform of the nation's punitive illegal immigration policy. The cardinal also endorsed creating a path to citizenship for the nation's 12 million-plus illegal immigrants, who cannot be deported for logistical reasons and who will not "self- deport" in the memorable words of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
That path to citizenship would have been enacted by now if not for the ideological recalcitrance of congressional Republicans, who prefer to maintain a broken system to working with Democrats to find a solution. Given this reality, President Obama must do more on his own. However, he must start by doing less deporting of immigrants, which sends children into foster care without addressing the failings of the system.
The president's greatest unilateral success on the immigration front was the deferral of the deportation of young people who would have been granted legal status under the Dream Act, which was squashed by congressional Republicans in a particularly mean-spirited act. That should be extended to their parents if they have no criminal record since coming here. The administration should stop asking states like Massachusetts to require their police officers to act as informants for the IRS. This deprives the officers of the credibility they need to combat businesses and others who are exploiting immigrants.
Addressing the issue of illegal immigration requires pragmatism as well as compassion for people who came to the land of opportunity primarily to pursue better lives, and their children. Cardinal O'Malley and others within the Catholic Church are showing both. It is well past time for Washington to do the same.