4/23 – ajc.com – The archbishop and Georgia’s illegal immigration debate | Political Insider

The archbishop and Georgia’s illegal immigration debate | Political Insider.

We are about to enter Stage Two of the debate over illegal immigration in Georgia.

With its endorsement of an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigrants, our Legislature has simply pushed past the preliminaries.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, left, talks with Maria Elena Castro Malagreca at the state Capitol on Good Friday. Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, left, talks with Maria Elena Castro Malagreca at the state Capitol on Good Friday. Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

Nathan Deal’s signature on House Bill 87 — the governor has said he will add it — will begin a predictable series of lawsuits, appeals, boycotts, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations.

We know that post-signature support for HB 87 will be peopled with hard-core Republicans and tea party activists. They insisted on the measure’s passage. But the most prominent face of the opposition may surprise you.

Its owner is African-American — and Catholic.

For the General Assembly may have just thrown a pitch into the wheelhouse of Archbishop Wilton Gregory and a surging Catholic Church in Georgia.

In a Good Friday interview on the steps of the state Capitol, Gregory expressed his disappointment in HB 87, a measure that he called “harsh and punitive.”

“I’m disappointed because much of the rhetoric — and I think a lot of it is rhetoric — is politically motivated and not related to the actual living situations of those who are here as undocumented residents,” he said. “Whenever you get into political rhetoric, you sometimes bring out the worst in people. You appeal to their least noble qualities.”

The Atlanta archbishop had weighed in on the issue before. In March, in a pastoral letter written with Bishops Kevin Boland of Savannah and Luis Zarama of Atlanta – the latter a native of Colombia, Gregory acknowledged the right of a nation to secure its borders. Like many others, the trio laid much of the blame for the current situation on a dysfunctional federal government.

But the three writers also upheld the Catholic position that “persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.”

And on Friday, Gregory said HB 87, by allowing law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal residency, carries the likelihood of “families that could be separated and, obviously, children left without parental supervision.”

The bill gives short shrift, he said, to the role that illegal immigrants have played in building Atlanta. “I think people are being demonized. Many of the jobs that are being described as being taken were there for the taking before immigrant people arrived,” Gregory said.

The archbishop had just finished a blessing aimed at 150 or so people gathered at the Capitol steps for the start of a pilgrimage commemorating the Stations of the Cross — Jesus’ path to crucifixion.

Many of the faces belonged to native English speakers, but almost as many did not. They included purple-robed worshippers from Peru, as well as a young man in the uniform of a U.S. Army private bearing a name tag that read “Gutierrez.” The service was conducted alternately in English and Spanish.

As a denomination, Catholics have not been absent from debates over social policy in the South. But their numbers were too small to draw much attention during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Ditto with protests over Vietnam.

Over the past 10 years and more, Catholics have paired with Southern Baptists and Methodists to push through ever-tougher state legislation to rein in Roe v. Wade and oppose embryonic stem cell research. Yet they have always been the junior partners in the alliance.

Immigration is rapidly emerging as the first large-scale social dispute that will feature Georgia Catholics at the head of the parade. Catholic churches in metro Atlanta served as venues for many pre-Easter celebrations last week. Many addressed HB 87 in some fashion.

“I have written about it. I have preached about it. I will encourage the priests and deacons of the archdiocese … to raise this to public attention. I won’t be silent,” the 63-year-old Gregory said.

Should the archbishop become a major voice in the Southern debate over immigration, his is likely to be an effective one.

The media-savvy Gregory was named to lead the Atlanta Archdiocese in 2004 as one of the last acts of a soon-to-be beatified Pope John Paul II.

Before that, he was president of the 190-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and earned praise for his response to child molestation scandals that tore at the fabric of church leadership in America.

Gregory is said to be on many short lists of candidates for the red cap of a cardinal. He would be the first African-American to wear it.

In any fight over immigration, the archbishop would be acting as the principal teacher of Catholic doctrine in North Georgia. But Gregory would also be defending his church’s astounding growth.

In 2006, church registries counted 350,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, spokeswoman Pat Chivers said. The numbers didn’t reflect Hispanics who didn’t register — out of a fear that they would be reported to authorities.

“More and more people register as the trust increases,” she said.

Head counts in Catholic churches in North Georgia are now approaching the 1 million mark, with Spanish speakers nearly equal to non-Spanish speakers in numbers.

“We’re representing the people in our parishes,” she said.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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