As Congress’ work on health care reform begins to wind down, U.S. bishops are gearing up for another major legislative effort — a comprehensive immigration bill that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living within U.S. borders.

As part of National Migration Week, the bishops announced an initiative Jan. 6 to ensure the Catholic voice is heard in Congress on the immigration issue. The bishops are calling upon the Catholic community to contact their legislators in support of immigration reform through a national postcard drive. The campaign also includes the launch of two informational websites to help educate the public on immigration issues; a revamped version of and a new website for the 2010 National Migration Week,

The bishops have been advocating for immigration reform since the launch of their Justice for Immigrants campaign in 2005. Catholic organizations united under the campaign to lobby for reform and nearly saw their efforts come to fruition with the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, a promising bill that was ultimately derailed in the Senate.

But Bishop John C. Wester of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, told Our Sunday Visitor that there may now be more support for a reform bill to pass. The bill recently introduced by House Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) may be the first step.

“President Obama indicated that he recognized the importance of reform, as so many others do, and we just feel that we need to take the opportunity now to do this,” Bishop Wester said. “We know there’s a lot going on with the economy and health care and with two wars, but at the same time, the situation with immigrants doesn’t go away. It is still there, and our country is suffering because of it.”

Mobilization effort

One factor the bishops’ conference is counting on to make a difference this time around is a grassroots effort among Catholics to demand that their elected officials take action on immigration. The bishops announced that 1.5 million postcards have already been ordered for national distribution.

Polls have shown that upward of 60 percent of U.S. Catholics support policies that would open the door to citizenship for undocumented persons, according to J. Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Policy. Demonstrating that support could make a difference in overcoming the anti-immigration lobbyists who have made their voice heard, he said.

“One of the reasons we lost last time was that opponents of immigration reform beat us in the field,” Appleby told OSV. “So part of the effort here is to get Catholics who otherwise might not get involved to get involved, even if it is simply signing a postcard.”

For those who might not yet be willing to take a vocal stand on immigration reform, Appleby said, the bishops’ conference hopes to provide enough information on the issue and how it relates to the teaching of the Church to motivate them to get involved. The Justice for Immigrants website provides a parish kit with homily ideas, bulletin inserts and other suggestions for pastors to help spread the word and build momentum in their communities.

“The challenge is getting those who are supportive of it but who are in the middle to pick up the phone and to call their legislator to say ‘We want this done,’” Appleby said.

Among those who have already pledged their support to help the bishops’ campaign are the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, who have been working on the ground level to build support and promote the need for immigration reform.

“We’re hoping to raise the consciousness of our parishioners and rally Catholics around this issue,” said St. Joseph Sister Mary Beth Hamm, social justice coordinator for the Philadelphia congregation.

Sister Mary Beth told OSV that the goal is to educate Catholics and to offer a positive look at immigration through telling the personal stories of the immigrants themselves.

“There is anti-immigrant sentiment out there, and for some people, the only message they hear is the negative message portrayed in the media,” she said. “So it is an opportunity to look at this issue from a faith perspective and to see what we can do to enhance life for people who came here because the conditions in the sending countries were so deplorable or oppressive.”

Path to citizenship

The bishops have outlined a number of provisions they would like to see in a comprehensive immigration reform bill to provide fair and just treatment of all immigrants.

Among the measures the bishops have called for are a timely and efficient family reunification process, improved conditions and due process for detainees facing deportation, stronger authority for immigration judges and the increased availability of temporary work visas that would allow immigrants to enter the United States for seasonal employment and then return home.

One thing the bishops are not calling for, however, is legislation that would give a free pass to those who have entered the country illegally.

“We’re not looking for amnesty here. We’re not looking to say, ‘You broke the law, that’s OK,’” Bishop Wester said. “We would say that those people would have to pay a fine, and they might have to get to the back of the line. There would be certain penalties, but they would nonetheless, having done all those things, be put on a path to where they could become citizens.”

Appleby added that an ideal piece of legislation would include some attempt to address the root causes of migration.

“A lot of times, we are our own worst enemy because we are the largest superpower in the world, and through our own trade agreements, we might be forcing some of these migrants to come here because we take their market away,” he said. “So we need to look at why people are coming in the first place.”

A self-serving agenda?

In addition to facing people who oppose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the Church also sees its share of critics who believe there are ulterior motives for their involvement in the debate.

An argument purported by former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo is that the Church has encouraged immigration only as a means of bolstering its declining numbers since a large percentage of immigrants are Catholic. Bishop Wester considers such attacks to be nothing more than unfounded, anti-Catholic sentiment, however.

“The point is the Church would support (immigrants) no matter what,” he explained. “We would do the same thing for a Muslim, or a Jewish person or a person of any religion or no religion, because it is the right thing to do.

“We believe the Gospel mandate that we are called to welcome the stranger in our midst … and we do believe that is the mandate we are living out.”

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Pope on rights of migrants (sidebar)

Clashes between citizens and immigrants in Italy have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to speak out about the human dignity demanded for people who are toiling on foreign soil.

“Every migrant is a human being — different because of provenance, culture and tradition — but a person to be respected and having rights, particularly in work, where the temptation to exploit is easy,” the pontiff said during his Jan. 10 Angelus address.