Updated: Tuesday, May 4, 2010, 7:30 p.m. ET
When Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony heard about Arizona's new immigration-enforcement law, the Catholic leader reacted with some good old-fashioned righteous anger. Taking to his blog, Mahony blasted the measure as the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigration law, comparing it to German Nazi and Russian communist techniques that forced individuals to turn one another in.
Mahony is hardly the only religious leader outraged by Arizona's approach to immigration, which requires police to ask for papers from anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. The progressive Evangelical leader Jim Wallis has declared the state's new law a social and racial sin. The president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society declared that by passing the law, Arizona has taken itself out of the mainstream of American life. And Mahony's Catholic colleague the bishop of Tucson has suggested that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) join lawsuits challenging the law.
The vigorous response to the Arizona law from faith communities is providing new energy to a national campaign for immigration reform that was already gathering steam this spring, including a massive rally in March on the National Mall. In the past week, however, Democratic leaders have sent mixed signals about their willingness to press ahead with immigration reform this year. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is backing off his vow from last week to make the issue a priority with or without GOP support. Similarly, after appearing to endorse swift action last weekend, President Barack Obama told reporters that there may not be an appetite to reform immigration laws this year. If immigration reform does fight its way to the top of the Democratic agenda, it will be largely through the efforts of a remarkably broad coalition of religious leaders.
The near universal support among religious groups for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is a change from the bruising fights over health reform that often saw faith leaders facing off against one another. But across theological lines, religious advocates say their traditions obligate them to care for immigrants. As the group New Evangelicals for the Common Good put it in a statement opposing the Arizona law, throughout the Bible, God commands us in no uncertain terms to show kindness and hospitality to the foreigner and the stranger.
The Catholic Church is the biggest player in the push for immigration reform. The issue has long been a concern of the Church and was a lesser-noted reason the bishops' conference ultimately opposed health reform. The USCCB strongly criticized the health measure for prohibiting illegal immigrants from participating in the insurance exchange, writing that undocumented immigrants should not be barred from purchasing a health insurance plan with their own money.
The USCCB is encouraging swift action on comprehensive immigration reform through its Justice for Immigrants campaign, which has provided hundreds of thousands of postcards for parishioners to send to Congress and sponsored teach-ins on the issue in dioceses around the country. A March 2010 poll by Public Religion Research found that among churchgoing Americans, Catholics were the most likely to say they had heard a local clergy member speak sometimes or often about immigration reform.
But while Catholics may be the most visible religious supporters of immigration reform, they are a joined by a broad coalition of other faith advocates. The Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) includes Quaker, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, mainline Protestant, Evangelical Christian and Catholic organizations. The IIC began quietly building pressure for immigration reform last year while the health care debate dominated Washington's attention, and it is largely responsible for keeping the issue on the radar of many congressional offices.