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Immigration Proposals Bedevil the Catholic Church

In the debate over illegal immigration in the United States, the Catholic Church has been a prominent voice in support of immigrant rights. It has traditionally provided shelter and assistance to immigrants regardless of their legal status. But as VOA's Brian Padden reports a new immigration reform bill could make it a criminal offense to aid illegal immigrants.

This day laborer center in Herndon, Virginia, near Washington D.C., is one of the flash points in the battle over immigration. It's a place to hire foreign workers -- some of whom are here illegally. Self-styled Minutemen, as they call themselves, in the camp of those opposing illegal immigration, record the license plates of those who hire workers at the center. Among those on the other side of the debate is the Roman Catholic Church, which recently began celebrating a Spanish language mass in Herndon to express solidarity with the immigrant community here.

Father Richard Mullins represents many priests who say protecting immigrant rights is part of their religious mandate to minister to the poor and oppressed. "No one is illegal especially in the eyes of the church. We are all the sons and daughters of God."

The Catholic Church has a long history of helping immigrants -- no matter what their legal status -- to learn English, find employment and provide legal services. But if a new law supported by many in Congress is passed, aiding and abetting an illegal immigrant could be a criminal offense.

Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado heads the House of Representatives' Immigration Caucus. He says, while it may be technically illegal to help undocumented workers, no one would be prosecuted for providing humanitarian aid. "No one is going to come after you for giving a sandwich to someone in the line, and this one happens to be here illegally. You don't ask. You don't tell."

But he says anyone who helps illegal immigrants enter the U.S. or hides them from law enforcement officials, would suffer the consequences.

"And the Catholic Church has every right to say, 'We're going to break the law,' and we have every right to say, 'If you do, you'll go to jail,' " he continued.

In a recent rally Father Hoyos said, "We cannot pay the price for the terrorist acts because -- our people are not terrorists."

Leaders in the Catholic Church like Father Jose Hoyos read the proposed legislation differently. They argue the bill would criminalize support programs the church currently provides and will continue to provide, even if it means going to jail. "Yeah, that's absolutely right because that's what we have been doing for more than 2,000 years. So the law is not going to change our way of doing charity, love and justice to every person here in the United States."

For these church leaders helping undocumented workers is not a political issue but an article of faith.

Video Courtesy: Catholic Charities ESL class, and Cong. Tancredo press conference