Catholic bishops across the region are taking the fight for an immigration overhaul to the pews.
As part of a nationwide campaign, Nebraska bishops are calling for changes that include an “earned path to citizenship for the undocumented.” Iowa bishops are seeking similar policies.
Bishops — who consider immigration policy an important moral issue for their flocks — also are calling for Catholics to urge local members of the U.S. House to support humane immigration legislation when Congress returns next month.
Letters with that message, endorsed by Nebraska's three bishops, were sent this week to all 365 Catholic parishes in the state. Iowa bishops have undertaken a similar mailing.
As early as this weekend priests could begin preaching the message during sermons, covering it during announcements or including it as an insert in parish bulletins.
The Catholic Church has long pushed for comprehensive immigration changes, but this latest effort has a sense of urgency, Catholic leaders said. With the Senate's overwhelming approval of an immigration overhaul in June, church leaders believe that there is momentum on the issue.
“The measure has come to a head,'' said Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines. “The system is broken (and) there seems to be momentum to fix it. It's a serious moral issue.”
The decision to embrace political action from the pulpit is part of a broader effort by the Catholic Church and other faith groups that support President Barack Obama's call for new immigration laws. It includes advertising and phone calls directed at 60 Catholic Republican lawmakers and “prayerful marches” in congressional districts nationally where the issue has become divisive.
“We want to try to pull out all the stops,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said the immigration issue was at a now-or-never moment. “They have to hear the message that we want this done, and if you're not successful during the summer, you're not going to win by the end of the year.”
Many religious organizations have played a substantial role in helping to rally support for an immigration overhaul.
But the Catholic Church, in particular, is throwing its full might behind immigration law changes.
It could be a tough fight.
The Senate-passed immigration bill faces stiff resistance in the GOP-controlled House, where many conservative members denounce as “amnesty” any pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. Instead, the House has been working on smaller, mostly enforcement-focused measures. But hard-line opponents are working to kill even those proposals for fear they could later be merged with the Senate bill.
Catholic leaders nationally are betting that their congregations will be able to exert pressure on reluctant Republicans and wavering Democrats to support immigration changes, such as an earned path to citizenship.
An earned path would include such requirements as passing a background check, paying a fine for being undocumented and paying income taxes, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is one of the most committed, outspoken opponents of any pathway to citizenship for those here illegally and has repeatedly sparked firestorms of criticism for employing provocative rhetoric on the subject. He also is Catholic.
He said bishops may have the edge on him when it comes to church doctrine.
“They know a lot more about faith and theology and especially the depth and the history of the church than I do,” King said. “That's their life, that's their training and they're appointed to guide us. When it comes to immigration, I've sat through nearly 11 years of hearings. ... I doubt if there is anyone in the clergy that can match up to those credentials.”
It's unlikely one Sunday in church is going to reverse King's stance on the issue, and he played down the significance of having to endure a Mass where the priest preaches the importance of passing immigration legislation.
“I've sat through a few homilies that I disagreed with and I anticipate doing that a few times in the future,” King said.
Church leaders recognize that not all Catholics agree about immigration.
The Rev. Damian Zuerlein, a longtime advocate for immigrant rights, said his views have rankled some members of his Papillion parish.
Zuerlein, pastor of St. Columbkille, said the Catholic Church must continue to push for an overhaul, even if some members oppose it.
“It's no different from the pro-life position the church takes,'' said Zuerlein, former pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in South Omaha. “If we take the Gospel values and apply them to the world we live in, sometimes people get upset, but that doesn't stop us from talking about a truth.”
Omaha Archbishop George Lucas said the number of Latino Catholics has been growing in Nebraska, and they play an important role in the church and communities.
Statewide, Nebraska's Latino population increased 77 percent between 2000 and 2010. Counts also rose significantly in Iowa.
Catholic leaders said the church's immigration effort isn't just a political one. Key goals are educating Catholics about immigration and encouraging them to consider the Gospel's call to help others.
“We want to think about the Gospel message of who is my neighbor and how do I (help) my neighbor,'' Lucas said.
The immigration letter sent to Nebraska parishes was produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of a nationwide campaign. The Nebraska Catholic Conference, the lobbying and public policy arm of the state's three dioceses, emailed the letter to all Nebraska parishes on behalf of the bishops.
This report includes material from the New York Times.