PHILADELPHIA — Immigration weighs heavily on the parishioners of Old St. Joseph’s Church, a centuries-old Jesuit parish that spread Catholicism through colonial America and now flies a “Welcome Pope Francis” banner over its gate.
In a city, and a faith, sustained through tough times by waves of immigration, the correct approach to undocumented workers has flared up as an issue here in recent weeks as Donald J. Trump in his presidential campaign has excoriated so-called sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia for being overly welcoming to immigrants.
While a Republican mayoral candidate in Old St. Joseph’s congregation agreed that the city needed to crack down, many others were appalled by the injection of explicitly nativist language into American politics and sought in Pope Francis a powerful ally.
Their prayers have been answered.
Francis, who will address thousands of Spanish-speaking families at Independence Mall here on Saturday, has in his visit to the United States become a virtual patron saint of suffering migrants. He hugged immigrant children in New York, and in Washington accepted a letter from a young girl seeking legalization for her parents.Photo
Already, in his historic address to Congress, where efforts for a comprehensive immigration overhaul have atrophied, Francis spoke about the masses of South and Central American immigrants who “travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” and urged more humane treatment of them by asking legislators, “Is this not what we want for our own children?”
At the White House on Wednesday, he pointedly referred to himself as “the son of an immigrant family,” and one of the two recommendations “close to my heart” that he made to fellow bishops later that day concerned immigration.
“Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration which affects many of your dioceses,” he said. Speaking “as a pastor from the South,” he encouraged bishops to “not be afraid to welcome them.”
Mr. Trump still thinks people should be afraid — and he said in an interview that the pope does not know what he is talking about.
“If he is in favor of illegal immigration, he doesn’t understand it,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody has properly explained it to him. And I’m Christian.”Continue reading the main story
News and features on Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, New York and Philadelphia in September, his first visit ever.
Just before the pope’s visit, Sarah Palin, who struck similar chords on the issue during the 2008 campaign, spoke “with all due respect as a baptized Catholic,” and said, “Come on, pope! Follow the law.”
The pope, who has emphasized a universal message of mercy and forgiveness, has spoken up for migrants against the global backdrop of a refugee crisis that is flooding Europe’s borders; a coarsening national political discourse on immigration; and a demographic shift to the Southern Hemisphere in the global church, with Hispanics now accounting for nearly 40 percent of all Catholics in the United States.
Philadelphia is a front line.
Since 2014, Philadelphia has refused to comply with requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to detain undocumented offenders, unless the government presents a judicial warrant and the person in question has been convicted of a first- or second-degree offense involving violence.
The city argues that such a policy fosters better cooperation between immigrant communities and the police, and improves public safety. But it has come under attack and become a topic of local debate since Mr. Trump seized on the murder of a woman in which an illegal immigrant has been charged in San Francisco, which has a similar policy.Photo
That has made Mr. Trump, who after the pope’s remarks on Thursday again referred to the murder in San Francisco, the boogeyman of the Catholic left.
Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle has said he hoped the pope would “shame those who spew hatred and vitriol toward immigrants for political gain.” Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, shook the pope’s hand after his address to bishops on Wednesday and said in an interview that the sanctuary cities policy “saves lives and saves families.”
And in a sign of how compassion toward migrants has become a rallying point in a church hierarchy that has shown signs of division over Francis’ de-emphasis of social issues, Salvatore J. Cordileone, the ultraconservative archbishop of San Francisco, warned after the murder there against the “implementation of policies that punish all immigrants for the transgressions of a small minority.”
Charles J. Chaput, the influential archbishop of Philadelphia, who has said his fellow conservatives have “not been really happy” with parts of Francis’ reign, has also been a strong pro-immigration voice. But at a panel this month he drew a line at the sanctuary cities policy, calling it “not a very good idea.”
The Vatican is careful to recognize a legitimate diversity of opinion on the issue of illegal immigration, advocating the rights of migrants to seek a better life and of sovereign states to regulate their borders. But in his speeches so far this week, Francis has clearly focused his attention on the migrants who see him as their champion.Photo
“When you have these two rights in conflict, which one has to bend?” said Greg Burke, the senior adviser for communications at the Vatican. “The Gospel answers that it has to bend in favor of human dignity.”
That is an answer with which a majority of Americans appear to agree. A New York Times/CBS News Poll this month shows that 65 percent of Catholics nationwide said they thought illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States and eventually apply for citizenship.
But it is also the answer undocumented immigrants and their advocates on the ground in Philadelphia want to hear.
“I don’t think there is anything about the pope that is representative of 18th Street,” said Jim Kenney, the Democratic candidate seen as likely to be the city’s next mayor, referring to the headquarters of Archbishop Chaput, a longtime adversary.
Peter Pedemonti, who runs the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia out of a small office opposite a Catholic church in the poor Kensington area of Philadelphia, said he personally had found inspiration in the pope’s urging people to “encounter” the marginalized where they are.Continue reading the main story Theology of Diversity and Solidarity
“That’s what Pope Francis is calling for,” Mr. Pedemonti, himself a Catholic, said. “You can’t encounter people if you are deporting them.”
At Old St. Joseph’s Church, the Rev. Philip Florio said he expected the pope to preach “welcome the stranger at your door” and reject the round-them-up and ship-them-out approach of Mr. Trump, at the mention of whose name the priest theatrically slid away on the pew.
One congregant, Bethany J. Welch, directs the Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia, near bakeries selling cookies printed with edible papal faces. She is organizing a pilgrimage of Mexican immigrants to the pope’s speech at Independence Mall.
Another Old St. Joseph’s parishioner, Melissa Murray Bailey, is running a long-shot campaign for mayor against Mr. Kenney. Sitting in the church’s courtyard, she explained why she, like the archbishop, opposed sanctuary city status for Philadelphia.
“We are not solving the root cause of the problem, we’re saying we’re going to ignore the laws,” she said. “It’s the law-and-order issue.”
But she wanted to make clear that she was pro-immigration and that she found Mr. Trump, who “makes it difficult for all Republicans,” odious. She preferred to affiliate herself with Francis.
“The things that drive him,” she said, “are very similar to the things that drive me.”
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