Cardinal Mahony: Putting a human face on the immigrant

When he turns 75 late next month, Cardinal Roger Mahony will step down as the leader of America’s largest Roman Catholic diocese.

But he’s still vigorous and plans to remain very much engaged, not only as a priest but also as an influential voice in the debates over an issue that has preoccupied him throughout his ministry: Immigration. In a statement to be distributed throughout the archdiocese this week, Mahony outlines his plans in a deeply personal document headed, “STANDING with the ELEVEN MILLION: Welcoming the Strangers in Our Midst.”

The title is a reference to the estimated 11 million immigrants currently making a life in the United States without legal documents. And in a conversation this week, I asked Mahony — the first native-born Angeleno to serve as archbishop — why this issue, among all others, so animates him.


“If you go back to my earliest years as a seminarian and as a priest,” he said, “these are the people to whom I’ve been most devoted and of whom I’ve been most admiring.”

In his statement, Mahony amplifies that personal history, writing that “while growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I came in contact with those Mexican American men and women who worked for my parents at their (poultry processing) plant. They became my friends. During my years as a seminarian at Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, several of us seminarians were able to accompany priests to the farm labor camps where Mass was offered .... After my ordination to the priesthood, I served in the San Joaquin Valley and was always deeply touched by the faith, traditions and commitment to family on the part of countless immigrants across the Valley .... The efforts of Cesar Chavez to improve the salaries and working conditions of thousands of farm workers in our state greatly inspired me.”

With an academic background in social work, Mahony — who served as the first head of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board — always has had a capacity, unusual among clerics, to engage the practical details of applying social morality to policy. Thus, he sees an opening still for comprehensive immigration reform, which he believes has been impeded by the recession. He intends, moreover, to devote a substantial portion of his effort to universities because, as he told me, “Young people get this issue.”

That, plus polling data that demonstrate a continuing appetite for some sort of path to legal residency and citizenship for undocumented immigrant workers, makes him optimistic on an issue many would rather avoid.

I asked Mahony how he responds to critics who charge that the church’s — and his — position on immigration is less a consequence of principle than of expediency. Newcomers, after all, are filling pews increasingly vacated by alienated or indifferent Catholics of European descent and helping to maintain the church’s position as the country’s largest religious denomination. The cardinal chuckled and quipped, “If that’s the only way we can attract people, we’d be doing such a poor job of proclaiming the Gospel that we’d have gone out of business years ago.”

Then, as he always does, Mahony quickly returned to the hard numbers he believes support the immigrants’ case and vindicate the church’s position on the issue. “More than 40% of our 11 million immigrant people came here with visas on airplanes and simply stayed on when their visas expired. Very few of [those immigrants] are Hispanic or Catholic. We have no system in this country for tracking people with expired visas, and we need to make more stringent tracking of visa holders part of any comprehensive immigration reform. And I support that.”

In his statement this week, Mahony writes that “I suspect that many anti-immigrant feelings and sentiments arise from frustration with the seeming inability, or the unwillingness, to fix our broken immigration system,” but that he hopes to “encourage all of us to get to know our immigrant neighbors more personally. We will discover that their core values are the same as ours .... Once we put a human face on an immigrant, the stereotypes … begin to dissolve.”

Immigration is one of those contested social questions on which goodwill and reason are in increasingly short supply. The approach that Mahony is now pursuing is so self-evidently rooted in our common moral wisdom and the practical realities of our economy and politics that those who refuse to engage the issue on this basis bear the burden of showing why.