Roman Catholic leaders in Orange and Los Angeles counties marked Ash Wednesday -- the start of a season of repentance and reflection -- with a plea to Catholics and others to commit themselves to immigration reform.
In Orange County, the church asked people to fast -- consuming liquids only -- for one day between March 26 and 30 as an appeal for citizenship opportunities for undocumented immigrants and reductions in visa application backlogs for the families of immigrants.
The church also called for a temporary worker program.
In Los Angeles, before 3,000 people at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said his focus for Lent would be the children of immigrants.
"They are innocents impacted by an unjust system that has failed and will continue to fail them and our society until true comprehensive reform is passed by Congress and the president," he said.
Mahony said he would travel to Washington in early March to encourage lawmakers to "take active steps" toward immigration reform.
Congress has been unable to come to an agreement on how to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. President Bush called for immigration reform, including a guest worker program, in last month's State of the Union address.
At St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim, Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto, a longtime champion of immigrant rights, proposed that parishioners fast to reflect on the problem.
"So much of the current debate on immigration has fostered a poisonous polemic that does little to bring any sense of security or hope to this anxious and confused world of ours," said Soto, speaking before 300 parishioners. "To this we propose a simple yet personal gesture of solidarity."
During Lent, which ends Palm Sunday, churchgoers are encouraged to make sacrifices while offering repentance. Fasting is typical.
To that end, Soto said he conceived the fast for immigration reform with other Orange County Catholic leaders who shared his concern about immigration issues.
Soto asked parishioners to fill out cards that will be sent to members of Congress, urging them to enact reforms. The Los Angeles Archdiocese conducted a similar postcard campaign last year. Soto said 15 of Orange County's 60 parishes had asked for the cards in recent weeks.
Soto said that although Orange County was "ground zero" for opponents of immigration reform, he was "hopeful that even people who have trouble with the church's position on immigration might dedicate a day to fasting and come to a new understanding that this can be beneficial for all."
One Catholic, Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a border patrol group that fights illegal immigration, did not appreciate the Ash Wednesday message.
"It goes to show you that the Catholic Church has no scruples when it comes to separation of church and state. The church should stay out of government business unless it wants to lose its tax-exempt status," Gilchrist said.
Still, the plea was widely applauded by those who attended in Los Angeles and Anaheim.
In Los Angeles, RJ Munsey, 46, a sign language interpreter who lives in Studio City, said, "I always think it's a great focus that Mahony pays attention to: the diversity of our city and welcoming of immigrants."
Modesto Galdames, a 45-year-old food service worker who lives in Orange and worships at St. Boniface, said church action can highlight immigrant contributions.
"Being with Jesus isn't just about coming to church and getting on your knees," said Galdames, a legal resident who emigrated from El Salvador 20 years ago. "It's about action. All human beings have the right to eat and live wherever, especially when they are working and paying taxes."