"We remind you that no human being made in the image of God is illegal," they said in a public letter addressed to all 163 Catholic legislators, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif..
In the letter, the university presidents called for a path to legalization for all undocumented immigrants. The group asked the lawmakers to resist pressure from "powerful interest groups" and said that as Catholics, they have a "serious responsibility to consider the moral dimensions" of policies.
The letter comes as Congress has been grappling with proposals for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws. Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan measure that would give illegal immigrants a chance to become U.S. citizens, step up border security and increase visas for legal and skilled immigrants.
The House of Representatives, however, is sharply divided on the issue, and conservative leaders want to break it into smaller individual bills addressing border security, legal immigration, employment and illegal immigration. Supporters of immigration reform say this would effectively kill any chance of meaningful change.
In a conference call with journalists Thursday, the presidents of the University of Notre Dame and the Catholic University of America and other leading Catholic educators called on Congress to end what they called the abuse and exploitation of illegal immigrants and to enact legislation that would take a humane approach to the issue.
John Garvey, president of Catholic University in Washington, recounted the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped a victim of highway robbery, even though the Samaritan was a foreigner in the country.
Garvey said the Catholic church had "singled out immigrants for special attention" and that they had "enriched the Catholic church" in the United States, "keeping our faith fresh and our churches full." Immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, where the great majority of inhabitants are raised as Catholics, have become increasingly central to the future of American Catholicism.
Most mainline Protestant churches have long supported immigration reform and legalization of undocumented immigrants. Evangelical Christian leaders have increasingly joined them, even though some of their congregations remain more conservative on the issue.
The Rev. Thomas Greene, an official of the Jesuit Conference in Washington who is also an immigration attorney, criticized members of the House of Representatives for promoting legislation that was "piecemeal and punitive." He said the enforcement of immigration laws should be realistic and humane. "Do we want to go after robbers or roofers?" he asked in the conference call.
In their letter and comments, the educators noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for comprehensive immigration reform and that many undocumented immigrants on Catholic campuses have rallied for this cause.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who chairs the migration committee of the bishops' conference, endorsed the educators' letter and called them a "welcome voice" in the immigration debate. "Educators understand the importance of investing in immigrant youth so they can become tomorrow's leaders," he said in a statement.
Mary Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, said during the conference call that American society would suffer a great loss if it does not fully legalize many of the talented students who graduate from college but are not able to vote or fully participate in public life.
"We would be shooting ourselves in both feet if we don't find a way to accommodate the future leaders of our country," she said.
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