American Catholics must lead the quest for comprehensive and humane immigration reform legislation, Cardinal Roger Mahony said on May 3 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
Catholics need to look at the church’s history, he said at a panel discussion on immigration reform.
“We have been an immigrant church since the founding days of the Republic,” Cardinal Mahony said. “The immigrant experience is our own, having come to these shores from all parts of the world.
“We should be front and center in leading the charge for immigration reform—not only because it is a matter of justice, but also because it is part of our identity, of what we are as a church,” he said.
Cardinal Mahony, the fourth archbishop of Los Angeles, was the keynote speaker for “Immigration Reform: A Moral Imperative,” a standing-room-only discussion co-sponsored by America magazine and the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture attended by nearly 500 people.
The cardinal’s 45-minute talk included a brief video presentation featuring two immigrant stories, which are available for viewing at www.facesofimmigrants.org.
Cardinal Mahony is one of the Catholic Church’s most outspoken advocates for immigrants. Yet he thanked Arizona officials for passing SB1070, the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration, which makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
“With the stroke of her pen, Arizona governor Jan Brewer not only signed into law the country’s most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant legislation, her action has helped to reinvigorate the comprehensive immigration reform movement, and has made clear the consequences of the failure to fix our nation’s broken immigration system,” he said.
The cardinal said the central feature of reform should be to bring the 12 million undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows” and offer them a secure path to legal status. In return, “these immigrants must learn English, pay a fine, and work for several years before earning the right to receive permanent legal status,” Cardinal Mahony said.
“Some have described this grueling journey as ‘amnesty.’ They are wrong. What is being proposed is a path forward that will require enormous sacrifices on the part of the immigrants every step of the way.”
Thomas R. Suozzi (LAW ’89), Nassau County executive from 2001 to 2009, and a respondent on the panel, said the federal government has failed to address issues with immigration for decades.
“Democrats and Republicans alike have forced this down on us,” he said, before adding that the Arizona law is “a terrible public policy.”
“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enforce our laws, but if you make immigrants live in fear, you will force them underground and that could be dangerous,” Suozzi said, referring to infections and crimes that could go unreported to authorities because of immigrants who fear apprehension.
“You have more problems when you cause residents to fear the government,” he said.
Suozzi recalled tensions he and other municipal executives had to deal with when he was mayor of Glen Cove, Long Island, in 1994.
“There was raging debate by two passionate sides over undocumented immigrants, whose numbers had grown in the city,” he said. “I relied on fundamental American principles—that all men and women were created equal—because this issue couldn’t become an excuse for racism, and that everybody has to follow the rules. I had to look out for newcomers, but also for my longtime residents.”
Suozzi said city officials set a two-pronged approach in place.
“If you follow the rules—don’t live in illegal housing, become a public nuisance or litter, etc., we will help you. But if you break the law, we will prosecute you,” he said.
Glen Cove city officials also created a centralized location for day laborers, and those who weren’t hired for the day had the opportunity to take English classes.
“Morally, we must treat all humans equally,” Suozzi said.
Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Fordham, addressed the topic through the lens of American history.
“It’s ironic; despite the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, we have anti-immigrant spurts,” she said. “The anti-immigrant periods generally are related to the state of the economy. In good times, we welcome immigrants. When the economy has contracted, we blame the immigrants as if it is their fault. We have done this without acknowledging their labor that has helped the economy expand.”
Immigrants have also been the scapegoats while those who benefit from their labor are rarely held responsible for any wrongdoing, Rodriguez said.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, opened the discussion by introducing Cardinal Mahony and recalling some history about the University’s founder.
“We are proud to call John Hughes our founder,” he said. “He founded St. John’s College, which would later become Fordham University, the proud mother of immigrants. He helped found the Catholic School system in New York City to protect immigrants. And he founded the Immigrant Savings Bank, also to protect immigrants.
“For the immigrant poor, we are proud of his heritage, here in a city where our greatest icon is the Statue of Liberty,” Father McShane said.