Kevin ApplebyBy Kevin Appleby

The U.S. Catholic bishops have been very involved in the national immigration debate, having called for reform of our nation's immigration laws, including a controversial proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Some Catholics have questioned out loud the bishop's involvement in the issue, suggesting that the church should remain neutral in such an emotionally charged debate. If one looks at the history of the U.S. Catholic Church, however, it is understandable that the church hierarchy sees it not only as a justice issue but as important to the future of the American Catholic community.

More than any other organized religion in the United States, the Catholic Church is an immigrant church that has grown in lock step with the nation, welcoming successive generations of immigrants who have helped build our nation. 

Indeed, the church and her institutions have welcomed and helped integrate into American life Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century; Central and Eastern Europeans who fled Europe after the Second World War; and Latin American and Asian populations more recently. To borrow a phrase from a toy store, immigrants are us.

During each successive wave, the church and the bishops defended the rights of newly arrived immigrants, arguing, in contrast to nativist organizations, that immigrants by and large added to the strength of our country by bringing to our shores unique skills, perspectives, and traditions. These new arrivals, the bishops claimed, enriched our culture and way of life. Given the success of our country as a global superpower, they were right.

The same debates are playing out today, as immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa -- the majority Catholic -- are becoming part of American society. And once again, the Catholic Church stands in the forefront of defending their basic rights and dignity.

Critics of the position of the bishops state that the church only wants more Catholics in the pews and that speaking in favor of immigrants is, in fact, a way to ensure that the new arrivals join and contribute to the local parish.

What they do not know is that immigrants are already here, drawn to the United States by the magnet of jobs and the opportunity to earn ten times more in a day than in their native lands. What also is not mentioned is that undocumented immigrants, who work in important industries such as agriculture and service, want to migrate legally but that there are insufficient -- only 5,000 -- permanent visas in the system for unskilled workers. 

Immigrants are present in Catholic social service programs, hospitals, schools, and parishes, and each day a priest or employee is approached by an immigrant asking for help for a loved one -- a parent who has been detained, a child who has been involuntarily left behind by two deported parents, or a distraught family member who has lost a loved one in the desert.

Without changing the law governing immigration, often priests, employees, or the bishops themselves cannot help them or help keep their families together.