Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Church & the Green Card Soldiers

A conversation on religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn

Catholic Church and Immigration

In Mexico City this past week, I've thought over and over how it seems I'm just visiting Los Angeles-adjacent, with it's shared love of mini-marts and the same soft night breeze. Because of that familiarity, I've thought more than I usually do about how vital immigration from Latin America has been to religious identity in the United States. When I read the AP story on Sunday, which described how more than 100 foreign-born U.S. soldiers were granted citizenship only after giving their lives for this country, I felt frustrated with how ridiculous this was.

What jumped out at me in the story were the words of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who oversaw one of these services and lobbied President Bush to change the policy, who took a stand on the issue. Mahony is the rare church leader who has agitated consistently for greater rights for illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Jose Gutierrez, who died in 2003, was killed by friendly fire in the opening hours of the invasion of Iraq. Cardinal Mahony oversaw Gutierrez's service and wrote an open letter to President Bush in April of 2003 and urged the president to grant immediate citizenship to all immigrants who sign up for military service in wartime.

"There is something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship," he wrote in the letter. "They should not have to wait until they are brought home in a casket."

In the article we learn that "Gutierrez's citizenship certificate -- dated to his death on March 21, 2003 -- was presented during a memorial service in Lomita, Calif., to Nora Mosquera, who took in the orphaned teen after he had trekked through Central America, hopping freight trains through Mexico before illegally sneaking into the U.S."

And that "tens of thousands of foreign-born members in the U.S. armed forces. Many have been naturalized, but more than 20,000 are not U.S. citizens. "Green card soldiers," they are often called, and early in the war, Bush signed an executive order making them eligible to apply for citizenship as soon as they enlist. Previously, legal residents in the military had to wait three years. Since Bush's order, nearly 37,000 soldiers have been naturalized. And 109 who lost their lives have been granted posthumous citizenship."

Mahony's letter was followed by his statement in 2006 that he would organize a campaign of civil disobedience if illegal immigration became a felony. I thought Mahony's stance a brave and smart one and a larger recognition of the significant portion of immigrants from Latin America who make up the American Catholic Church and keep it alive and vital.

It is exciting to think that Mahony may be a trailblazer for both the American Catholic Church and its Anglo congregations in focusing his energy and aid on the rights of these vital parishioners. If Church leadership advocated as decisively for immigrant rights as it has in it's fight against abortion, a reasonable solution seems possible.

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