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The Bay Area’s biggest religious institution, the Catholic Church, is throwing its weight against a federal immigration dragnet that in the past two years deported more than 6,500 people from the region.
As Republican presidential contenders clash in the days leading up to the crucial Florida primary over the harshness or softness of their stands on illegal immigration, Catholic priests here and across the country are championing a humanitarian approach and condemning what they describe as “selfish” demagoguery.
“It is heartbreaking to hear the painful stories of unjust deportations pouring in from our congregations. California can do better,” San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer said in a statement ahead of a Saturday gathering of immigrants and their supporters at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
Both pastors and politicians have reason to appeal to a growing Latino and immigrant constituency.
An estimated 24 percent of Americans, including GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, say they are practicing Catholics. Adherents vary greatly in their political and social views, but recent polls show that Catholics have a more favorable view of immigrants than most Americans.
Fifty-five percent of Catholics believe today’s immigrants strengthen the country more than they create a burden, compared with 45 percent of all Americans and 37 percent of Protestant Christians, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion
and Public Life. But Catholics are also divided within their own community: Only 40 percent of white Catholics say that immigrants strengthen the country.
The church leadership, however, is increasingly taking a public stand on the side of immigrants, regardless of how they got here.
In the latest pronouncement, Niederauer this weekend will join a movement challenging Gov. Jerry Brown — a former Jesuit seminarian — and Attorney General Kamala Harris to amend or back out of the state’s Secure Communities partnership with the federal government. Immigration agents are now alerted through the program’s electronic database whenever police arrest a deportable immigrant.
Brown and Harris were not able to be reached for comment Friday about the church’s criticism. But in the past, both have defended Secure Communities as a useful tool in deporting criminals.
Santa Clara and San Francisco counties have resisted participation in the program, but have repeatedly been told by federal officials they had no choice.
In October, Santa Clara County supervisors thumbed their noses at the feds and started freeing illegal immigrants with a history of serious and violent crimes. But immigrant agents later arrested them after their release from the county jail.
Other counties have embraced the network. More than 60,000 people have been deported from California through the program since San Diego County became the first to join in 2009.
The California Immigrant Policy Center, an advocacy group for immigrants, says that about 70 percent of deportees had either “no convictions or had been apprehended as a result of routine traffic or permit offenses.” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement counters that many of those who are not criminals are people who repeatedly broke immigration laws, often by re-entering the country after being deported
Separating so many people from their U.S. families defies Christian teachings about human dignity, many Bay Area priests say.
“We’ve been hearing more and more stories in our parishes, especially within the Hispanic population,” said Bishop William Justice, Niederauer’s assistant. “The children all of a sudden don’t have a parent around. It’s really not supporting the unity of the family, the sacredness of the family.”
Catholic priests have accompanied families to deportation proceedings, Justice said, and priests hear stories about immigration problems in informal chats after weekend services.
Latino and Asian immigrant congregations account for a large and growing percentage of the membership in the five Bay Area Catholic dioceses, headquartered in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton.
Immigration-control activist Ira Mehlman believes the church’s steady advocacy “to promote amnesty” reflects its own worries about connecting to a membership that would be declining were it not for immigration from Latin America.
“It helps replenish members of the congregations around the country,” said Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “The Catholic Church sees this as a way of keeping the pews full.”
Religious appeals on behalf of the downtrodden may be sincere, he said, but the economic consequences of illegal immigration hurt legal U.S. residents.
“One of the things they consistently forget is you can’t be charitable with someone else’s resources,” Mehlman said.
High-ranking clergy around the country are comparing today’s divisive debate to the discrimination Catholic immigrants suffered in previous generations.
“I worry that in the political debates over immigration we are entering into a new period of nativism,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said in a speech last year in the Napa Valley. In December, the Mexican-born priest and 32 other Latino bishops wrote a lengthy letter to immigrants on the issue. The letter criticized federal and state policies, telling immigrants that “in your suffering faces we see the true face of Jesus Christ.”
The socially conservative Niederauer will be appearing with an unusual ally, liberal Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, at the Saturday church gathering.
Ammiano is reintroducing a bill — placed on hold last year — that would revise the state’s Secure Communities agreement to allow local governments to opt out. The Bay Area’s Catholic hierarchy is backing Ammiano and more general efforts to halt deportations that split families.
“The governor and attorney general have power to help,” Justice said. “We’d love for them to do it.”
Not all local Catholics are in line with the church’s strong statements. Republican and real estate broker Michael Forbes, who attends a church in Burlingame, said “the observant Catholics are probably a lot more likely to have a more humane perspective on this issue.”
But he also wondered if church leaders were thinking through the ramifications of their proposals.
“The church’s traditional concern with maintaining families, protecting families and protecting the poor and the needy is well-known, but the law is the law and we expect our civic authorities to enforce the law,” Forbes said.
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