Seeds of immigration woes planted 20 years ago, says Sacramento bishop

Bishop Jaime Soto

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif. CNS file photo/Tyler Orsburn

It’s not fair to vilify the administration of President Donald Trump for immigration woes, because the problems go back well before Trump took office, said Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California.

He made the comments in an interview with Catholic Outlook, Tucson’s diocesan newspaper, during CLINIC’s annual convening May 30-June 1 in Tucson.

Before taking the stage for a panel discussion on “30 Years of Defending the American Dream” at the national meeting, he spoke extensively about the state of immigration in the country today and what he thought could be done to make it more effective moving forward.

“It’s been 21 years and three administrations,” he said, tracing the government inaction — including congressional failure — back to the administration of President Bill Clinton.

The new era of U.S. immigration restrictions began with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which passed under the first Clinton administration and took effect April 1, 1997. Bishop Soto explained that every time legislation was offered to provide immigration reform, Congress declined to do it. “They just kicked the can down the road.”

When Temporary Protective Status, referred to as TPS, was provided for immigrants fleeing war or hardship in places such as Haiti, Honduras or El Salvador, nothing was ever done to provide a permanent solution for those entering the U.S. with that status.

“As bishops, this has been an issue for us for a long time,” Bishop Soto said, adding, “That’s a folly of political paralysis that Congress didn’t resolve that.”

CLINIC, short for Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., was founded in 1988 by the U.S. bishops hoping to create a network of loosely-affiliated diocesan immigration agencies. Bishop Soto has been a member of the CLINIC board of directors for 14 years, including service as board chairman from 2008 to 2010.

While the Trump administration has made headlines lately for policies such as travel bans and separating children from their families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the bishops have “shown prudence by not responding to everything this administration does,” Bishop Soto said. “The level of debate is reaching the level of hysteria.”

Having said that, “I don’t think there is anyone more active than the bishops” when it comes to advocating on behalf of immigrants and for comprehensive immigration reform, the bishop noted.

“Our churches need to continue to support the immigrant community,” he said, adding that parishes can effectively provide resources for advocacy and consistent delivery of accurate information to immigrants.

Bishop Soto was unconvinced that public protests might act as a catalyst for immigration reform. “I am not sure how effective those actions are. Good political currency can be wasted on large public demonstrations.”

The most effective strategy for addressing the current immigration policy is to build community at the local level, said Bishop Soto, a former community organizer. That includes leaders from churches, social services and law enforcement.

“The more the local law enforcement community can relate to the local immigrant community, the less likely they are to do anything to jeopardize the fabric of the community,” he said.

“In America, people in small towns are very pragmatic in addressing these issues,” Bishop Soto said. “Local authorities are more accountable to local communities.”

The bishop shied away from pushing legislative agendas at the state level. In California, the state Legislature passed a bill declaring it to be a “sanctuary state,” which reinforced support for immigrants residing in cities that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities, but that action had negative consequences too.

First, it made California a public target of the Trump administration. Second, it created wedges that had not existed in communities which had not made a “sanctuary city” declaration.

Internationally, a hallmark of American success has been its ability to integrate newcomers, the bishop said. People “are in awe in Europe over how the culture of America is more permeable, always recreating itself,” he explained.

Nationally, however, the political environment has become more partisan, making it difficult for all parties — residents, immigrants, politicians and municipal and other government leaders — to be mindful of the common good, Bishop Soto said. “Discussion on any issue has become more difficult. I am concerned that we have lost our ability to use the language needed to seek the common good.”

He wondered if core elements of Catholic social teaching, such as solidarity and inclinations toward sacrificing and compassion, have been lost. “Our paralysis on enacting immigration reform is a consequence of that.”

Bishop Soto urged Catholics to follow the lead of Pope Francis. “As challenging as the circumstances are, we have to be messengers of hope,” he said.

He cited a line from the pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Gospel of Joy”) — “time is greater than space” — as a strategy for continuing to work closely with the immigrant community. With so many attacks cluttering the space of public discourse over the immigration issue, “we can use time and hold on,” the bishop said.

Citing the pope’s emphasis on accompanying people in their realities, Bishop Soto said: “Realities are more important than ideas, and we are in a very ideological age.”

“We in the church have to stay committed to the works of mercy,” he said.

When he visits immigrant communities, Bishop Soto said, the people he encounters are “more scared than ever. But they are happy because they see me as a priest. They are happy because they know the church stands with them.”

Brown is managing editor of Catholic Outlook, newspaper of the Diocese of Tucson.

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