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On Immigration, Catholic Bishops’ Top Aide Has Lobbied For Obama’s Executive Action

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Mark Stricherz - published on 11/20/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Kevin Appleby will measure his efforts today when president announces plan

WASHINGTON — For years, Catholic bishops have emphasized their support for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
In 2003 pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stressed that "when persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive.” 

Last week, two high-profile bishops, Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson and Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, went further. The prelates threw their support behind an executive order on immigration, which would remove the threat of deportation from millions of immigrants who overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally.  “(I)t would be derelict not to support administrative actions … which would provide immigrants and their families legal protection,” Elizondo told Religion News Service.

The media reports suggested that the bishops’ tentative endorsement of an executive order is new. In fact, the bishops’ top aide on immigration has lobbied President Obama from the left for nearly half a year.

Kevin Appleby is the director of the office of migration and refugee policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Since June, when President Obama announced he would issue an executive order on immigration, Appleby has spoken as an advocate for the liberal or progressive side of the debate over immigration reform, not just the moderate side that has urged Congress to overhaul the immigration laws.   

In late June, Obama proposed spending $2 billion to hire and train more immigration judges in south Texas and build more detention centers for families that attempted to immigrate to the United States.
Obama’s policy tacked to the political center; few liberals in Congress opposed greater federal intervention in the humanitarian crisis.

For Appleby, the proposal was a threat to immigrants’ lives.
“He is going to get a fight on this one,” Appleby told The Washington Post, referring to Obama.
“It could result in vulnerable children being sent back to real danger and possibly harm or death.” (, Appleby agreed that more federal funding to hire and train judges was needed).

In mid-November, after Republicans picked up enough seats on Election Day to regain control of the Senate in January, Obama weighed the timing of his decision on the executive order. Democratic leaders such as Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader, told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call that he preferred Obama wait until Congress approved an omnibus spending bill, although Reid later said Obama should "act now."

Appleby suggested that if Obama waited any longer the president would face strong political opposition from progressives and Hispanic interest groups.

“This is his last chance to make good on his promise to fix the system,” Appleby told The New York Times. “If he delays again, immigration activists – just politically speaking – would jump the White House fence.”

Through spokespersons, Appleby declined two separate email requests for an interview.

Appleby has released little information publicly about his background.
According to the USCCB website, he earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and a Master’s in international public policy from George Washington University; he worked as an aide to Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana, a conservative Democrat, and for the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-to-late 1980s.  He has held his position with the USCCB for more than a decade; he appeared on a forum on immigration on C-SPAN in 2000.

In an op-ed last August, Appleby cast an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws as a transnational duty for Catholics. “Immigrants are present in Catholic social service programs, hospitals, schools, and parishes; each day priests and other staff are approached by an immigrant asking for help for a loved one – a parent who has been detained, a child who has been involuntarily left behind by two deported parents, or a distraught family member who has lost a loved one in the desert,” Appleby wrote for Religion News Service, a liberal-leaning news organization. “Without changes in our immigration laws, priests, employees, the laity, or even bishops cannot help solve these problems or help keep their families together.”

In addition, Appleby appealed to Catholics’ self-interest and compassion.
“In many ways, they are the future leaders of our communities, parishes, and nation, but they constantly live in fear of the knock at the door, when they or their parents will be taken away at a moment’s notice,” Appleby wrote. “In many ways, we are shaking their faith in God.”
A prominent Catholic academic (who wished to remain anonymous) said Appleby has not only spoken about and helped form the bishops' policy but also has helped mediate between the bishops and a more secular-minded public.

"From my perspective, he has been absolutely instrumental in conveying the Church's position in a major policy debate that has been roiling the nation for a long time. Talking to the media is part of that, but so is his behind-the-scenes advocacy with a broad range of politicians and policy makers," the academic said.

"Appleby's expertise is lobbying and translating the bishops' prerogatives into concrete policy recommendations on immigration reform. He's not setting the policy himself …but  mediating between the discourse and values of the bishops, and a political culture that's grown less receptive to Catholic moral guidance."
Although Appleby has tacked to the left on an immigration overhaul, he has avoided using terms such as “deportation” that some progressives invoke to demonize conservatives.
Appleby’s consensus brand of liberalism is matched by some on the right who espouse a consensus brand of conservatism on immigration reform.

For example, incoming Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, a Republican, said he opposes the bishops’ support for comprehensive immigration reform and the executive order. Instead of using words such as “amnesty” that rile liberals, Guinta said that an immigration overhaul would violate the will of voters who cast ballots on Election Day.
“Look, I’m Catholic. My wife’s Catholic. We’re raising our kids Catholics. My faith says we should treat others with consideration and respect, and we have to find a way to unify families,” Guinta said in an interview Tuesday. Guinta declined to support legislation that would address the status of the 12 million immigrants who overstayed their visa or crossed the border illegally. “I’m not going into hypotheticals,” he said.

President Obama is expected to announce the executive order in a primetime address Thursday night. If he issues the order, the American Church could gain millions of adherents, as most come from heavily-Catholic Mexico.

The Catholic academic said Appleby is bound to approve of Obama's executive order: "This isn't comprehensive immigration reform, but it moves the ball down the field."

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

Tags:
ImmigrationPolitics
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