By Erin Kelly
September 24, 2015
Immigrant rights advocates were reinvigorated by Pope Francis's plea to Congress to welcome migrants, but proponents of tougher immigration laws said they doubt the pontiff's message will have a lasting impact on lawmakers.
Pope Francis, born in Argentina to Italian immigrants, made a strong plea to Congress to allow immigrants into the "land of dreams" and implored them to reject "a mindset of hostility."
"On this continent ... thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities," the pope said. "Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal."
The pontiff is seeking a change in the tone of the debate, which has become especially vitriolic in the Republican presidential primary race, said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. GOP front-runner Donald Trump has drawn criticism for characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers.
"I think (the pope) is seeking a change in tone and how we talk about human beings," Atkinson said. "He challenged Congress to cooperate and come up with humane immigration reform."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he was relieved that the pope didn't use the words "comprehensive immigration reform," which have become synonymous with proposals to offer a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. The center opposes most efforts to give legal status to undocumented immigrants.
Although the pontiff didn't get specific about immigration legislation, he "essentially called for unlimited immigration" by telling Congress not to be taken aback by the huge number of immigrants seeking to come to the U.S. from Central America and other regions, Krikorian said.
"I'm just afraid that the pope's perspective seems to be that there should be no limits on the right of immigrants to come to the United States," Krikorian said, adding that he was surprised that Pope Francis devoted nearly four paragraphs to immigration and barely mentioned abortion.
The pope spoke to a Republican-led Congress that has been at odds with President Obama over immigration.
Congressional leaders have taken a hard-line approach to the issue, calling for tougher enforcement of immigration laws and stepped-up deportation of undocumented immigrants. Obama has taken executive action to allow many immigrants who came here as children to apply for legal status and work permits. He has offered the same protection to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Republican lawmakers have challenged his actions in court.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, said the immigration reform movement was re-energized by the pope's visit.
"It's been a rough summer with all of the diatribes against immigrants that we've been seeing on TV," she said. "To have somebody come with a positive message is very important for us. It reminds us that we are on the right side of history, even though the U.S. is stuck in a pretty dark time in terms of Republican politics."
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which seeks to reduce U.S. immigration levels, said the pope's message can be interpreted in several different ways.
"Depending on your point of view, you could say his message was to take in all the immigrants," Beck said. "But he also said to try to respond as best as we can to their situation. But what is that exactly? It leaves a lot of room for interpretation."
Advocates on both sides agreed that the pope's speech is unlikely to have any immediate impact on Congress.
"Some of the politicians have been quoted as suggesting that maybe he could jump-start comprehensive immigration reform, like raising Lazarus from the dead," Beck said. "I think they would be really stretching to say he did anything like that."
Atkinson said she hopes people who watched the speech will help change lawmakers' minds over time.
"It's hard to imagine that even something as powerful as the pope's address will change the hearts and minds of people who demonize immigrants and oppose immigration reform efforts," she said. "But I'm hoping the people listening around the country will reach out to their members of Congress and say this is something that needs to be addressed."
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