The presidents of 93 Catholic colleges and universities are calling on Catholic members of the House of Representatives to pass immigration reform that would put most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country on a path to citizenship.
“Catholic teaching values the human dignity and worth of all immigrants, regardless of legal status,” the Catholic leaders say in a letter sent to all 163 Catholic member of Congress, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner. “We remind you that no human being made in the image of God is illegal.”
The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last month but, so far, the Republican-controlled House has not touched it.
The presidents represent 290,000 students at Catholic colleges and universities. They noted that 10 percent of House and Senate members graduated from Jesuit colleges.
“One thing immigrants do for the American Catholic Church is they enrich the church,” said John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America. “They’re keeping the Catholic Church fresh and the churches full. More and more they're the backbone of parish life.”
“It would be a failure if we miss the opportunity to make the nation more welcoming,” said Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame.
Garvey joked that the only way to influence members of Congress to vote for the legislation would be “revoking their degrees.” He said that “apart from that we don't have a lot of authority over them” and acknowledged that presidents' advocacy might not sway representatives opposed to the bill. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also backed reform legislation.
Religious leaders from some evangelical churches — including conservatives such as Liberty University Law School Dean Mat Staver — have joined their Catholic colleagues in advocating for reform. Evangelical and Catholic churches are increasingly filled with immigrants and their children, and Christian doctrine commands followers to “welcome the stranger,” these leaders argue. It remains to be seen if they can mobilize their followers — about half of Americans self identify as Catholic or evangelical — to pressure lawmakers to pass reform.
Some lawmakers have objected to the Christian argument for reform. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has argued that the immigration reform boosters play “fast and loose” with Scripture, which frequently emphasizes the importance of following the law.
Garvey addressed these concerns on a conference call with reporters. He said that even though unauthorized immigrants have broken civil immigration laws, they do not deserve to be punished their whole lives.
“We don't pursue people for all of their lives for something they may have done to find a better life for their families,” Garvey said. “At some point we have to let those transgressions go in our search for working things out.”