Catholic bishops begin postcard campaign for immigration reformBy Stephen Wall
JAN. 14, 2010 (www.sbsun.com
) - In an empty sanctuary on a cool weekday morning, Federico Jaimes prays for amnesty.
The 57-year-old Mexican immigrant kneels as he clutches a string of rosary beads in a solemn petition to the Almighty.
"I am desperate, mainly for my family because I can't give them what they need," Jaimes said a short time later outside Immaculate Conception church in Colton. "At my age and with no papers, it's hard for people like me to find a job."
The Colton resident came to this country from Morelos, Mexico, nine years ago. A husband and father of three, Jaimes has been unemployed for two years. He does yard work and other odd jobs to earn a few bucks. His wife and 21-year-old daughter hold down part-time child-care and
Colton resident Federico Jaimes, 57, who is an illegal immigrant, prays for Mexican immigrants at Immaculate Conception church in Colton on Friday. The Catholic Church is launching a new push for immigration reform in 2010. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Staff Photographer)
restaurant jobs to help the family make ends meet.
Despite his predicament, Jaimes has a strong ally in his quest for legal status, which he hopes will translate into a steady job.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a nationwide postcard-writing campaign to urge Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.
The Diocese of San Bernardino is mobilizing Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the church, to convince federal lawmakers to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Latinos make up nearly half the 1.2 million member diocese, which covers San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
More than 1.5 million postcards have been ordered for the legalization effort, including 45,000 for the San Bernardino diocese.
The postcards are part of the "Justice for Immigrants" campaign, which also features two new Web sites with tools and resources for parishes to state their case for reform.
While the Catholic Church has long pushed for overhauling immigration law, officials say the need has grown in recent years.
"I think it's more urgent now," said John Andrews, spokesman for the diocese. "The amount of money that the federal government is spending on enforcement has gone way, way up. We're seeing more effective enforcement, but no reform. We're seeing more families detained, more families separated and more deportations. So the conditions for immigrants are worse."
But in making such an outspoken plea on behalf of people in the country illegally, the church risks a backlash from parishioners who don't share its view.
Betty Guzman, a Grand Terrace resident who regularly attends Christ the Redeemer church, said the church is acting in its own self-interest, "with total disregard for this country's future."
Many people are leaving the church, Guzman said, so it is the church's interest to bring in immigrants to fill the pews and generate more money.
"It is easy for the church to cry out for `human dignity and human justice,"' Guzman said. "No one is arguing against that. But if we keep ignoring the current crises our country is going through - the crowded schools, hospitals, and lack of job opportunities - soon we will be no better off than the countries these immigrants fled from."
A recent Zogby International poll of likely voters who belong to different religious denominations found strong support for reducing overall immigration. The survey was commissioned by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington D.C.
"Overall, most parishioners do not agree with the bishops," said Steven Camarota, the center's director of research. "In many ways, the bishops are speaking only for themselves."
Catholic officials recognize that some parishioners have a hard time with the church's stance in favor of helping illegal immigrants.
"It's a difficult issue for Americans and it's a difficult issue for Catholics," Andrews said. "It puts the onus on us to really teach and explain why we are taking this position."
The Catholic Church believes in the rule of law and the right of the United States to protect its borders, he said.
"What we often say is the church has a long history of participating in the process to amend or change laws that reflect our beliefs in the dignity of every human person," Andrews said. "We also understand and have participated in the process to amend laws we don't think are just."
Andrews said an often overlooked part of the church's message is the need for the federal government to work with countries like Mexico to address why they are sending massive numbers of people to the United States.
Bishop Gerald Barnes, who heads the San Bernardino diocese, met in September with Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, to press the case for immigration reform. He hopes to discuss the issue with other members of Congress over the President Day's recess, Andrews said.
Lewis agrees with the bishop that the immigration system is broken and action from Congress is needed to create a new process that is fair and workable, said Jim Specht, his spokesman.
"The bottom line for Congressman Lewis is that immigration reform lead to a system that protects our borders and the jobs of American workers," Specht said in a statement.
Specht said the congressman's office has not received any postcards supporting immigration reform recently. In most weeks, he receives as many 100 e-mails, faxes and letters calling for strengthening immigration enforcement and keeping illegal immigrants out of the workforce, Specht said.
There are usually fewer than 10 e-mails, faxes or letters supporting amnesty or a more liberalized immigration system, he said.
Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, has strongly supported the church's efforts on immigration reform.
"For those who follow it, Christian doctrine teaches us to love thy neighbor as thyself," Baca said in a statement. "The church understands that immigration reform is an issue of respect, dignity and fairness for all human beings - and one that we must address if we are to consider ourselves a just society."
Rev. Patricio Guillen, a retired priest who presides over mass at different parishes in the diocese, said he often talks about the need for immigration reform in his sermons.
"I always share with them the importance of helping people who are in trouble," Guillen said. "Thousands of people throughout the United States are being stopped. When they can't prove they are here legally, they are detained and deported. They're doing it in a way that separates children from parents."
Critics say the church has no business advocating for illegal immigrants.
"How can the Catholic Church or any religion promote illegal alien lawbreakers?" said Raymond Herrera, founder and president of We The People California's Crusader, a Claremont-based group that opposes illegal immigration.
Herrera said he left the Catholic Church four years ago because of its views on immigration.
"A church that rails on behalf of the criminal elements in our society is a church that's un-American and against the rule of law. They should be ashamed of themselves," Herrera said.