Mazzoli: Immigration reform a ‘moral’ issue

Former Congressman Romano Mazzoli, an active Catholic, received a blessing from Father Peter Bucalo after his ordination at the Cathedral of the Assumption in May of 2015. (Record File Photo by Marnie McAllister)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

In the mid-1980s, when a comprehensive immigration reform bill brought millions of undocumented people out of the shadows and more fully into American society, Catholic voices were at the forefront.

Former U.S. Congressman Romano L. Mazzoli, a Catholic from Louisville who co-authored the bill in 1986, said the faithful must raise their voices again if another such bill is to come about.

Mazzoli is a member of Our Mother of Sorrows Church and a recipient of the papal Benemerenti Medal, awarded by Pope Francis in 2013. He said during an interview Dec. 2 that oftentimes the moral aspect of the immigration issue gets lost in the political shuffle.

“Immigration is an economic, sociological, demographic and political issue, but it’s also a moral issue,” said Mazzoli. “In the Bible,  Jesus said take care of the little people, take care of the people among you who are strangers.”

The bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act — authored by Mazzoli and then-U.S. Senator Alan Simpson — was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on Nov. 6, 1986. 

The bill created a pathway for millions of immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Given today’s political climate, another comprehensive immigration reform bill will be difficult, said the former congressman. For this reason, he said, the church must continue to “announce to Capitol Hill” where it stands on immigration.

And “happily” the church has done so, he said.

Romano Mazzoli

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has steadily and repeatedly told the Hill in no uncertain terms that we need immigration reform of a comprehensive nature, which includes the people we have a moral responsibility to,” said Mazzoli.

The faithful — clergy, religious and laity — also have an important role to play, he said.

The  1986 law came about after a detailed study on immigration in the United States at the time, Mazzoli said. The study was led by Father Theodore Hesburgh, who served for 35 years as president of the University of Notre Dame.

Mazzoli contends that, if not for Father Hesburgh’s work, which he compared to that of a farmer preparing the fields for planting, there may not have been a bill.

Catholics in the pew may find it “intimidating” to speak openly about immigration and go against public opinion, he said, but it’s the right thing to do. In fact, he noted, that’s what Jesus Christ did.

“The faithful’s responsibility is not to be pushed away by the fact that there are narrow voices in our midst preaching a certain siren song of exclusion,” said Mazzoli. “We have to be aware that there are siren songs of inclusion and we have to listen to those voices of inclusion and say ‘this may be tough to talk about, but I know it’s right.’ ”

Moreover, he said, it’s part of what Christ asks of the faithful in the Gospel of Matthew. He said it’s his “hope and prayer” that the voices of the bishops and the people will “coalesce” to bring about a comprehensive immigration bill.

Mazzoli said that some have a “misconception about immigrants.” He believes that having a personal experience with immigrants would “immeasurably” change these feelings, he said. 

Mazzoli said his life and Simpson’s were touched by immigration early on. Mazzoli’s father came to the U.S. from Italy as a child. His grandfather, said Mazzoli, died three months after emigrating to the U.S., which led to a difficult start for his father in a new country.

Mazzoli said Simpson’s life was changed, too, when he forged a friendship with Norman Mineta — a young Japanese-American boy living in an internment camp in Wyoming during WWII. The two were Boy Scouts together. Simpson never understood why Mineta, a fellow Boy Scout, had to live in the conditions he did, said Mazzoli. Mineta went on to serve as a  member of Congress as well.

When faced with limited views and opinions of immigrants, Mazzoli said he usually asks, “ ‘Have you been to a naturalization ceremony and seen the sea of beautiful faces and the little children and the dads and moms when they are sworn in and become American citizens?’ ”

Mazzoli said if people got to know immigrants as “human beings” instead of seeing them as a “category,” things would change immeasurably. If the people in power would get to know them and see how “wonderful, hard-working and devoted” to their families they are, the attitudes in “Congress, state houses and local assemblies” would change, he said.

Mazzoli invites the faithful to attend a naturalization ceremony or visit with immigrants at an English as a Second Language class at Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services office.

Mazzoli said he and Simpson have stayed in touch through the years. Both are glad they didn’t back down and saw the bill through.

It can happen again, Mazzoli added, but “it will take a few men and women in Congress who are willing to stand up and be for something, which on the surface isn’t always popular, but which in their hearts they know is moral and correct.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform for years.

In their document “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the bishops list proposals they believe should be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The proposals include:

  • An earned legalization program which would create a path to citizenship;
  • A worker program that would allow foreign-born workers to enter the U.S. legally;
  • Family-based immigration reform that would increase the number of family visas available and reduce the waiting times for families to be reunited;
  • Addressing root causes of migration and enforcement, which includes increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live and work in the country.

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