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The Church of and for immigrants

posted Jul 29, 2014, 11:30 AM by Vidal Martinez

For today's Common Good Forum, we feature an essay by Dr. Maria Mazzenga of The Catholic University of America. In this shorter version of a speech she gave at last week's National Migration Conference, Mazzenga details how the Catholic Church in the United States has had long and proud history of fighting for immigrants' rights.

The immigrant roots of the U.S. Catholic Church are well recognized. Though Catholics had been present in colonial America, starting in the early nineteenth century through the first two decades of the twentieth, they came in droves, from Ireland and Germany at first, then from Poland, Italy, and Lithuania, among other countries of Europe. More than 16 million came to a country with a population of 92 million. By 1920 the number of Catholics, many of them immigrants, had grown to 20 million. Amid the influx, anti-Catholic and anti-foreign sentiment flared, supported by pseudo-scientific racial theories that categorized the old-stock Northern European and largely Protestant population as superior to the Southern and Eastern mostly Catholic migrants. Many descendants of these late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Catholics can trace their roots back to the immigration of this period.

Perhaps less evident in the memory of these later generations of Catholic migrants is the activities the Catholic Church organized to assist their ancestors, particularly under the aegis of the organized bishops of the U.S. Almost from the moment they first organized into what would become the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic lay and clerical leadership sought to address the needs of Catholic immigrants to the U.S.

The early period of mass migration to the U.S. (roughly 1880-1920) was accompanied by dramatic economic changes, particularly in the cities. The growth of manufacturing, the expanding industrial sector, and the explosion of railroad networks meant that labor was in high demand.

People flocked to the cities in search of work and immigrants poured into the country hoping to find employment in America's factories. As a result, the nation witnessed unprecedented population redistribution: city-dwellers went from 19.6% of the national population to 45.7% in just fifty years!

Social and cultural changes paralleled these economic changes, as the vast wave of immigrants altered the ethnic profile of the country. Up until 1896, most immigrants had come primarily from Northern and Western Europe, especially from Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia. By 1907, however, the vast majority were arriving in the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe, particularly Italy, Poland, and the Slavic lands. Most of these newer immigrants were Catholic, and they settled primarily in the cities of the East and the Midwest. In New York City, for example, four of five residents were either immigrants or children of immigrants by 1910.

These Catholic immigrants created communities that differed considerably from the established Anglo-Protestant pattern. Few spoke English, and many were impoverished working-class laborers. Immigrants tended to congregate in urban areas with others from their country of origin, creating ethnic neighborhoods in the cities. These neighborhoods were shunned by the Protestant majority, who viewed them as breeding grounds for illiteracy, disease, immorality, and un-Americanism. Even the Catholicism practiced by these ethnics, often based on local folk practices, was sometimes suspect. At this time, there was a strong strain of anti-Catholicism (among other prejudices) in the U.S. This is a difference compared to today, where anti-Catholicism is generally not bound up in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Before 1920 there was no organized response on the part of the bishops to the incoming migrants. If immigrants were provided services it was by local Catholic groups or by Protestant organizations. The burdens of caring for new Catholic immigrants, and the problems of unconnected ethnic parishes, however, became evident during the First World War. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the country's archbishops realized that they possessed no organizational framework through which they could organize the activities of American Catholics.

Many of the new Catholic arrivals to the U.S. needed assistance in establishing jobs and homes before they could contribute to the war effort. In addition, the ethnic parishes were unused to cooperative action.

A group of prominent Catholic clergy, therefore, met in August 1917 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to establish a new National Catholic War Council to streamline and organize the activities of American Catholics. The delegates selected the Paulist editor of the Catholic World, Father John J. Burke, to head the organization.

The American hierarchy soon realized that this wartime organization might serve the nation's Catholics in peacetime as well. In 1919, at the war's end, the War Council was transformed into the National Catholic Welfare Council ("Council" was changed to "Conference" in 1922), which involved itself at federal, state, and local levels in Catholic activities concerning legislation, education, publicity, and social action.

The NCWC continued to serve the American church until 1966, when it was reorganized as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and its working secretariat, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). A further reorganization in 2001 resulted in another name change, which serves as the current title of the organization: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

During its early years, the NCWC did not make any coordinated, systematic effort to address the needs of Catholic immigrants, preoccupied as it was with the war effort. In 1919, however, the NCWC established a Social Action Department, which sought to promote citizenship, improve industrial relations, and encourage charitable organizations.

The widespread social and economic unrest of postwar America made the work of the fledgling bishops’ conference complicated. Political and economic philosophies like socialism and communism were seen by some, including many immigrants, as solutions to the economic and social problems of the postwar years. A “Red Scare,” often targeting immigrants followed, resulting in widespread suspicion of the foreign-born.

Much of the anti-communist and anti-radical hysteria was directed at foreigners, who were suspected of importing dangerous communist ideology into America. Influenced by such circumstances, the Social Action Department set as one of its chief tasks the "Americanization" of foreign-born Catholics, educating new arrivals about American government, training them to adapt to American culture, and teaching them to embrace many aspects of Anglo-Saxon society. Parochial schools and adult citizenship classes used materials and publications provided by the Social Action Department, such as the Civics Catechism, in their efforts to "Americanize" immigrants. While both the publications of the Social Action Department and the work of its staff assisted immigrants in becoming acquainted with American society, neither element focused on aiding brand-new arrivals to the U.S. in establishing homes and jobs.

Early in 1920, a letter from a Seattle lawyer and former congressman, Dudley Wooten, alerted Father John Burke, the head of the NCWC, to the possibility that Catholic immigrants at Ellis Island were being served, assisted, and influenced by Protestant organizations. In response to the concerns raised by Wooten, Burke held a staff meeting in 1920 to establish a Bureau of Immigration at the NCWC. Bruce Mohler, who had served as the Red Cross commissioner in Poland during World War I, was selected to head the new Bureau.

Mohler had a huge impact on the bishops’ immigration activities: He headed the Bureau, which was reorganized and is now folded into Migration and Refugee Services, from 1920 until that fateful year for immigrants to the U.S., 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national origins quotas that had been a hallmark of immigration policy since the 1920s.

Almost as soon as the Bishops began organizing to assist immigrants, movements for immigrant restriction began in earnest.

To be sure, the immigration restriction movement officially began in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was a racist bill that prohibited the migration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. Many Catholics at the time, especially in the labor movement, supported the restriction of Chinese migrants. But others realized that it represented a general anti-immigrant prejudice and opposed it.

Though there were attempts at restricting immigrant groups earlier, the Chinese Exclusion Act is recognized as paving the way for the broader immigration restrictions that followed. In 1903, Congress forbade the immigration of anarchists and polygamists to the U.S. Four years later, a new bill was passed that prohibited the entry of "those persons afflicted with tuberculosis or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease," as well as any women entering the country "for immoral purposes."

There was growing support for further limitations and restrictions on immigration, fed by fears that the "inferior racial types" from Southern and Eastern Europe were rapidly outnumbering the ethnically dominant old-stock "Nordic" Americans through mass immigration. People believed that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were genetically less able to be productive citizens, and thus would be a burden on the American public.

These ideas influenced the immigration legislation passed by Congress in the 1910s and 1920s. The Immigration Act of 1917, for example, imposed a literacy test on potential immigrants, prohibiting the illiterate from entering the country.

Following the War, the popularity of immigration restriction was at an all-time high. In response, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, which established fixed limits on the number of people emigrating to the U.S. from any one country. The 1921 Act established the quotas based on 3% of the number of immigrants from each national origin group based on the 1910 census, which reflected fewer numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe than the time in which the act was under debate. In fixing the quotas based on the 1910 numbers, Congress hoped to keep out the supposedly inferior races, such as Italians, Poles, and Slavs.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act extended the quota system in an even more discriminatory process, changing the basis of the quotas to the 1890 census, when even fewer Southern and Eastern Europeans had been present in the United States. The new legislation thus discriminated against Catholic immigrants, the majority of whom came from the "undesirable" regions of Europe. The quota system established by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act remained in place for nearly three decades.

During the Great Depression, both Congress and American Catholic leaders were more interested in the problems of unemployment than in immigration. With the start of World War II, however, the question of immigration was raised once more, especially in regard to the refugee crisis in Europe. The Bishops’ conference established the Committee for Catholic Refugees from Germany in 1936 to address the matter of German Catholic refugee resettlement in the U.S. This organization worked with the Bureau of Immigration Affairs to resettle refugees.

In 1947, Congress launched a comprehensive review of America's immigration laws. The review culminated with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Bill in the summer of 1952.

Known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, the 1952 legislation revised and restructured immigration policy in the United States. Although it was originally vetoed by President Truman in June of 1952, Congress quickly overrode his veto, by a margin of 278 to 113 in the House of Representatives and 57 to 26 in the Senate. The Immigration and Nationality Act was the first major piece of legislation on immigration since the 1924 National Origins Act that established the quota system.

Like its predecessor, the McCarran-Walter Act reaffirmed the use of quotas. The new legislation, however, established a preference system for determining priority of admission for each quota. According to this preference system, immigrants with valuable professional or job-related skills were given priority over unskilled laborers. Family reunification was also emphasized.

Opponents of the McCarran-Walter Act objected to the bill because it maintained the quota system for immigration. Like the opponents of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, those who opposed the McCarran-Walter Act argued that the quota system was an unjust, racist, un-American, and even un-Christian policy.

An editorial for the popular Catholic magazine America, for example, stated: "that the McCarran bill is entirely out of tune with the Declaration of Independence and that it makes a mockery of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. More than that, it flatly contradicts the basic concept of Christian brotherhood as proclaimed by St. Paul." Proponents of the 1952 legislation avoided discussing the racist undertones of the quota system. Instead, they countered criticism of the bill by emphasizing its economic and national security benefits.

These two sides of the debate over the quota system - whether or not it was a distortion of American values, and whether or not it helped keep America safe - were both products of Cold War politics. Those in favor of immigration restriction warned that a more open immigration system would make it easier for communists to infiltrate the United States, which played on American fears of communism in the early years of the Cold War.

The National Catholic Welfare Conference decided to give its support to the McCarran-Walter bill out of practical concerns, despite its continuation of the quota system. The Conference believed that the 1952 legislation was an improvement over the status quo established in the 1924 Act, and was especially pleased with some of the changes introduced into the final version.

The NCWC's pragmatic support for the McCarran-Walter Act was not shared by everyone in the Church. Msgr. John O'Grady, the General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, was a particularly vocal opponent of the legislation. He argued that the continuation of the quota system was a racist approach to immigration that was entirely incompatible with a Christian worldview. Furthermore, he claimed that the restrictive immigration system would only help to alienate America's allies and undermine America's standing in the world. From this perspective, he believed it was imperative to oppose the McCarran-Walter Act because of the fundamentally flawed worldview on which it depended.

The decade following the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act witnessed the continuing efforts of the NCWC and others in the quest for new legislation that would eliminate the national origins quota system. By 1965, when Representative Emmanuel Celler (D-New York) and Senator Philip Hart (D-Michigan) co-sponsored a bill which would abolish the quota system entirely, support for immigration restriction based on national origin had eroded to such a degree that the bill was easily passed.

The dramatic shift in American immigration policy reflected wider cultural changes that had transformed American views on race.The "scientific" views on race which had informed the original 1924 quota system had been thoroughly discredited by the early 1960s. In addition, the Civil Rights movement transformed American perceptions of race relations by drawing attention to the injustice and bigotry of racial discrimination. As a result, the racist arguments used to support immigration restrictions lost legitimacy. The U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on racial discrimination, beginning with the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, further eroded the logic behind the national origins quotas, and challenged the American people and legislators to reevaluate the ways in which questions of race influenced political decision-making. These cultural changes made it increasingly difficult to maintain immigration policies based on racism.

The bill proposed by Celler and Hart advocated replacing the quota system with an annual cap on immigration, regardless of country of origin. During the debate on the proposed legislation, American Catholic leaders voiced strong support for the bill. Since the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, the Catholic Church had regularly voiced opposition to the discriminatory features of American immigration law, pointing out that it rested on anti-Catholic bigotry as well as racial prejudice. On June 1, 1965, the director of the Department of Migration, John McCarthy, wrote a letter to the NCWC's General Secretary, Rev. Paul Tanner, stating that the immigration legislation proposed by Celler and Hart was "excellent" and would "eliminate the iniquities and prejudices that have existed in our immigration laws for the past forty years."

Throughout the summer of 1965, the NCWC sought to rally support for the immigration legislation through outreach to the press, grassroots campaigns, and the coordination of activities with the Catholic hierarchy across the United States. Their advocacy efforts eventually proved successful. Sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, President Johnson signed the bill into law on October 3, 1965. Only thirteen years separated the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act, which reaffirmed the quota system, and the 1965 immigration act, which eliminated it. Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the Act's leading advocates, noted that its passage was a victory over "radicalism" and "reaction", a defeat for the bigotry and prejudice that was embodied in the quota system. He remarked that the "national-origins quota system was conceived in a radical period of our history - a period when bigotry and prejudice stalked our streets, when fear and suspicion motivated our actions toward the world around us."

The new legislation signified a major shift in U.S. immigration policy. While it ended the practice of racial discrimination in issuing visas, it still provided ways to regulate the number of immigrants entering the United States. In place of national origins quotas, the Celler-Hart Act created a cap of 290,000 visas per year; a total of 170,000 visas were to be provided for countries in the Eastern Hemisphere, with no more than 20,000 visas allotted for each country. A 120,000 visa cap was developed for countries in the Western Hemisphere, with no per-country limit.One important exception existed in the annual limits: spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens were exempt from the numerical limits.

The 1965 Act led to substantially more legal immigration and altered the ethnic makeup of the immigrant community. By 1975, legal immigration was up at least sixty percent, and the numerical caps were raised. Most of the new immigration came from developing nations: immigration from Europe decreased significantly, while immigration from Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean dramatically increased.

Total immigration from the Asia-Pacific Triangle, for example, jumped from 15,186 in 1965 to 80,971 in 1969. The increase was in large part the result of "chain migration," as family members abroad followed other relatives into the United States. The flood of "new" immigrants, as well as concerns over illegal immigration, led to renewed debates on immigration policy, debates which have become especially prominent in the early twenty-first century.

Although the 1965 legislation had significantly restructured American immigration policy, the Act failed to resolve many of the wider political debates on immigration. Less than a decade after President Johnson signed the bill into law, immigration was once again a hot-button political issue. The cultural pressures of new waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as concerns over illegal immigration from Latin America, ensured that politicians, journalists, reporters, and most segments of the American public would remain concerned about perceived problems with the United States' approach to immigration.