Close by the Statue of Liberty, Pope John Paul II urged America on Thursday not to shut its gates to immigrants but to continue its historic tradition of "welcoming the stranger."
Thrusting himself squarely into a turbulent domestic political debate on a stormy New Jersey night, the pontiff took aim at those who would make the United States close its borders and limit the rights of illegal immigrants already here.
"It must not!" the Pope emphatically told nearly 83,000 people--themselves a great ethnic mosaic--packing Giants Stadium for the first big Mass of his latest American pilgrimage.
"Quite close to the shores of New Jersey there rises a universally known landmark which stands as an enduring witness to the American tradition of welcoming the stranger and which tells us something important about the kind of nation America has aspired to be," John Paul said.
"It is the Statue of Liberty with its celebrated poem: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . .'
"Is present-day America becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy? It must not!" And he added: "If America were to turn on itself, would this not be the beginning of the end of what constitutes the very essence of the American experience?"
Earlier in the day, the Pope addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the second time in his 17-year pontificate, warning against unbridled nationalism and deploring the yawning gap between rich and poor nations.
Speaking to the stadium audience largely in English but occasionally in Spanish, the 75-year-old leader of the world's nearly 1 billion Roman Catholics spoke as political pressures are building in the United States to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and as the Clinton Administration is working to tighten U.S. borders.
In California, voters last year approved Proposition 187, the controversial ballot measure aimed at cracking down on public benefits for undocumented immigrants. The measure is opposed by many of the state's religious leaders, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who looked on as the Pope forcefully made his plea in Giants Stadium.
Reflecting the church's ethnic diversity in the United States, the Pope followed his address with prayers in Spanish, Portuguese, Creole, Italian and Korean.
The Pope spoke as driving rain fell in the huge stadium. At times raindrops mixed with tears on the faces of the faithful.
In addition to immigration, John Paul touched on several controversial, though familiar, themes. He condemned abortion and euthanasia, drawing applause from many in the crowd. Moving seamlessly from the rights of immigrants to the rights of the unborn and the elderly, the pontiff noted that America had acted to overcome religious and racial intolerance.
"To a great extent, the story of America has been the story of long and difficult struggles to overcome the prejudices which excluded certain categories of people from a full share in the country's life," he said.
"Sadly, a new class of people is being excluded. When the unborn child--the stranger in the womb--is declared to be beyond the protection of society, not only are America's deepest traditions radically undermined and endangered, but a moral blight is brought upon society."
Pushing home his point, John Paul turned to threats against the elderly, the handicapped and society's outcasts.
"When innocent human beings are declared inconvenient or burdensome and thus unworthy of legal and social protection, grievous damage is done to the moral foundations of the democratic community," he said.
"The right to life is the first of all rights. It is the foundation of democratic liberties and the keystone of the edifice of civil society. Both as Americans and as followers of Christ, American Catholics must be committed to the defense of life in all its stages and in every condition."
The Pope's remarks on immigration were clearly viewed by church officials as among the most significant statements of his American journey.
In an interview, Mahony said that he hoped "people of goodwill" would think about the Pope's remarks. "The role of the Pope is not to speak to public opinion but rather to call on us to follow God's ways," he said. "All of us are immigrants or of immigrant roots, and will hopefully think more fully about these issues."
While many U.S. Catholics and the news media have frequently stressed the Pope's teachings against birth control and abortion, he has been widely popular in developing countries, where his emphasis on social and economic justice has struck responsive chords.
The Pope entered a stadium filled with a sea of multicolored slickers. Many in the crowd had waited patiently and cheerfully for hours in rain that alternated between drizzle and downpour.
The bad weather forced the Secret Service to abandon its plans to fly the Pope from Manhattan to New Jersey in a Marine helicopter. A motorcade was substituted.
"Water is a sign of life, a sign of God's blessing," the Pope said as the stadium crowd cheered.
Slowly, with rain streaking the windshield of the "Popemobile," John Paul circled the football field. Windblown nuns waved while tens of thousands in the crowd snapped pictures.
The specially designed, bulletproof vehicle does not have windshield wipers, and its side windows were kept partially open.
Officials estimated the crowd at 82,948, each one screened by metal detectors. Security was so tight that for a time the Secret Service refused to allow umbrellas into the stadium. But the bad weather forced agents to relent.
The rain and wind made lighting the altar candles an adventure. At one point, a gust blew off the Pope's white skullcap.
But no one seemed to mind.
"For me, just being here is enough," said Joan Valencia, 35, a telephone company worker from Plainfield, N.J. "The people are like a family today--no hustle, no bustle, no rush."
"He brings us close to God," said Isabel McLaughlin, 81, who lives in a home for the elderly in Totowa, N.J.
Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson and special correspondent Helaine Olen contributed to this story.