Riding high on the Pope Francis wave, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese has emerged as an outspoken proponent of immigration reform, which is on political life support in Congress. Earlier this month, O’Malley led a delegation of nine American bishops to Nogales, Ariz., and ultimately to the border fence where he said Mass to crowds gathered on both sides of the US-Mexico line.
O’Malley drew inspiration from Francis, who last summer visited the island of Lampedusa, an Italian point of arrival for immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. The pope then denounced the “globalization of indifference” that immigrants encounter all over the world as he celebrated Mass on the site.
O’Malley, who is fluent in Spanish, is no stranger to the plight of undocumented immigrants. In the 1970s, he ran a Catholic center for Latinos in Washington, D.C., and founded the area’s first Spanish-language newspaper. The church’s more aggressive approach on immigration grew evident and more public last fall when O’Malley wrote a letter urging bishops throughout the country to address immigration reform at Mass.
It may be tempting to argue that the church’s louder stance on immigration is also an exercise in self-interest. According to the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of the 52 million US Latinos are Catholic. But by 2030 that percentage could shrink to half as more Hispanics join evangelical Protestant congregations. Evangelical leaders have wasted no time inserting themselves into the immigration reform debate: A year ago, they launched the Evangelical Immigration Table, a concerted effort to lobby for reform.
Historically, the Catholic Church’s position has been to support comprehensive immigration policy changes, including a path to citizenship for the 11.7 million undocumented. But O’Malley’s border trip and his louder voice mark a long-awaited shift that can only help keep the pressure on Congress.