Pelosi, the Bishops, and Immigration

Their attempted alliance to pass a reform bill has fizzled.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not, despite her powerful position, a riveting speaker. The San Francisco Democrat tends to stammer and fumble somewhat, even before friendly crowds. And the crowd she addressed on May 7 was about as friendly as they come. Pelosi was speaking at the National Catholic Community Conference. The event was hosted by Trinity Washington University, her alma mater, and the National Catholic Reporter. She was introduced by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

Still, she had obvious nerves. Perhaps that was because she had come to ask Catholic bishops for help in passing a comprehensive immigration bill. This was mere months after she and other Democratic leaders had pushed a health care bill through Congress that the bishops had vociferously opposed.

Or perhaps Pelosi was nervous because she already knew that she was losing this particular battle. Immigration reform was stalled at the time and the prospects were getting worse by the day. Either way, there wasn’t much the bishops could do to save the reform bill. They suffer from the same problem that Pelosi’s Democrats do: on the issue of immigration, their flock is not inclined to follow them.

Indeed, since Pelosi’s speech, the “comprehensive immigration reform” she favors has fizzled in Congress. Ironically, Pelosi herself is preventing the House from even voting on it, according to a key backer of the bill. She is afraid of what forcing a vote might mean for the party’s prospects in the upcoming election.

Pelosi obviously did not see that coming in early May. At the time she still had reason to hope. So she made her pitch. “I would hope that there is one thing that we can do working together as we go forward that speaks to what the Bible tells us about the dignity and worth of every person—and that is on the subject of immigration,” Pelosi said.

She continued: “Because I think thechurch is going to have to play a very large role in how people are treated. The cardinals, the archbishops, and the bishops come to me and say we want you to pass immigration reform and I said I want you to speak about it from the pulpit.”

Pelosi began to fumble at this point, apparently blanking on the term “congregation” (“I want you to instruct your, whatever the communication is…”). But her point was clear: Catholic bishops need to tell people in the pews that opening the borders “is a manifestation of our living the gospels.”

“Our patron saint of San Francisco, St. Francis of Assisi, said, ‘Preach the gospel. Sometimes use words.’ We need the words to be said because it isn’t being picked up just automatically,” Pelosi said.

She concluded by hitting on at least five different liberal arguments for immigration in as many sentences: “We have to respect that dignity and worth and recognize that the church has an important role to play in that. As a practical matter we cannot say to people—12 million of you—go back to wherever you came from or go to jail. We can’t do that.

“The newcomers to American are really, again, important to the constant revitalization of America, which is part of who we are and who we have always been. Unless you are Native American—God bless them—but most of the people here came from somewhere else,” Pelosi said.

News accounts of the address highlighted Pelosi’s call that the bishops speak directly from the pulpit in favor of immigration legislation—an admittedly striking comment given that it directly contradicts Pelosi’s customary support for a “wall of separation” between church and state.

But perhaps more striking was the fact that Pelosi had called for the bishops’ help in the first place. On this issue at least, they were already on the same side, something she had to have known. In fact, many of the American bishops have been more steadfast supporters of open border policies than the Democrats themselves.

In January 2003, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and their Mexican counterparts issued a joint pastoral letter calling upon “both governments to cooperate and to jointly enact policies that will create a generous, legal flow of migrants between both nations.” That position is further than even the most liberal Democrat would go (at least in public). The letter even shies away from using the phrase “illegal immigrant,” preferring euphemisms such as “undocumented migration.”

So the bishops didn’t need much convincing. A better way to understand what was going on is to look at the timing of her speech. The remarks came about two weeks after the Arizona immigration law—which empowers law enforcement officials to inquire about immigration status in the course of regular police business—had become national news.

Immigration reform leaders and Democrats like Pelosi rushed to condemn the Arizona law, assuming the broader public would agree with them. The bishops were equally vocal. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, for example, called it “the country’s most regressive, mean-spirited and useless anti immigrant law.”

It is possible, even probable, that both the bishops and the Democrats wanted to rebuild some ties that had been strained during the health care debate. “They may be bruised from their recent defeat in the health care wars, but the bishops are arming again—this time with new allies. Bishop (John) Wester says he is meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leading Democratic proponent of immigration reform, and together they’re shopping for bipartisan support,” wrote Newsweek’s religion editor Lisa Miller in a May column. Wester is chairman of the conference’s Committee on Migration and Refugee Services. Miller said he was seeking a “Republican Bart Stupak, a centrist who would be willing to take the high road on behalf of the tired and poor.”

It turned out to be harder than Wester and Schumer thought. Initially, Democrats thought a public backlash would hit Arizona. This would in turn make it possible for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill—which would include a pathway to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants, i.e., an amnesty for illegal immigrants—by the summer.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even briefly threw a cap and trade climate change bill off of the Senate schedule to make room for the immigration bill. (He succeeded only in undermining the energy bill at a crucial moment.) The immigration bill never happened because the backlash never happened. Poll after poll showed that solid majorities, usually around 60 percent, favored the Arizona law. The Democratic leaderships’ calls for a reform bill found insufficient takers in their respective caucuses.

The general public simply has little patience for illegal immigration. A May Quinnipiac University poll found that 85 percent thought illegal immigration was a serious problem. By a margin of 66-26 percent, they preferred stricter enforcement over integrating immigrants as the best way to handle the situation. By a 48-35 percent margin, the respondents said they wanted their state to pass a law like Arizona’s.

Pro-immigrant feelings are at a low ebb even in Pelosi’s party. A May CBS poll found that while 40 percent of Democrats thought the Arizona law went “too far,” another 46 percent thought it was “about right” and 10 percent said it did not go far enough.

At the time of Pelosi’s remarks, it had to be dawning on her and Reid that all they managed to do was get the hopes of the Latino voters up for something that may not happen. Getting the bishops to speak from the pulpit was not a strategy; it was a desperate plea for help.

It didn’t work. Not because the bishops weren’t on Pelosi’s side on this issue, but because the bishops are just as out-of-step with their congregations on this matter as the Democrats are with their own constituents. A December 2009 study by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restrictionist policies, looked at immigration attitudes by religious groups. They found that most Catholics had distinctly different views than their bishops.

Just 24 percent of self-identified Catholics said they supported some form of conditional legalization for illegal immigrants (such as paying a fine and returning home before being given citizenship). Nearly twothirds— 64 percent—said they supported stricter enforcement of immigration, and 69 percent said immigration overall was too high.

By late June, things were looking grim for the reformers. Rep. Louis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a key backer of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, told CWR that he believed the bishops had tried their best, but hadn’t changed the minds of many Catholics. “Do we need [the bishops] to do more? Yeah, we need them to do even more. It is nice when they speak. We need them to speak more consistently and more fervently,” he said.

By this point, even Gutierrez had to concede that time was rapidly running out for immigration reform this year. “There is an insufficient number of Democrats to pass this in the House and Senate. There, I’ve said it,” Gutierrez told reporters in late June.

Gutierrez’s bill had no Republican co-sponsors. The few Republicans who had previously expressed interest in backing comprehensive immigration reform, like Arizona’s Sen. John Mc- Cain, had backed away.

At the same press conference, Gutierrez said that Pelosi told him she would only schedule a vote on the bill if the Senate passed it first. This is a regular tactic used by the Speaker to avoid having to force House members to cast a difficult vote. Since the bill is unlikely ever to pass a Senate filibuster, she has effectively put the vote off forever. Numerous House Democrats have presumably told Pelosi that they don’t want to have to vote on this in an election year.

Between the scant amount of time on the congressional calendar and the fact that lawmakers will soon be focusing on the fall elections, it is clear that hopes for immigration reform this year are dead.


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