These days, passionate intensity is the usual price of admission to the public square, which makes the temperate and civil tone of Cardinal Roger Mahony's long and constructive contribution to our civic conversation all the more notable.
Even so, there was a particularly angry and personal tone to his denunciation this week of Arizona's SB1070, which has passed that state's Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Jan Brewer's expected signature. The new law would require the state's law enforcement officers to demand that anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally immediately present proof of their legal residency. It makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry their papers. It empowers private citizens to sue any jurisdiction in which the law is not fully enforced.
Writing on his personal blog early Sunday morning, Mahony called the bill "the country's most retrogressive, mean-spirited, and useless anti-immigrant law." He decried its basic premise — "that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder, and consume public resources" — as tragic "nonsense."
The cardinal attributed Arizona's passage of the law to a federal immigration system that is "completely incapable of balancing our nation's need for labor and the supply of that labor. We have built a huge wall along our southern border, and have posted, in effect, two signs next to each other. One reads, ‘No Trespassing,' and the other reads ‘Help Wanted.'"
SB1070, Mahony wrote, will put Arizona law enforcement into the business of "guessing which Latino-looking or foreign-looking person may or may not have proper documents. That's also nonsense. American people are fair-minded and respectful. I can't imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of (improper) documentation. … Asking ordinary Americans and over-worked law enforcement officers to hunt down people of suspicious legal documentation is ludicrous and ineffective."
As the first cardinal born in Los Angeles, Mahony once told an interviewer that his feeling for immigration's human dimension was shaped by a raid he witnessed as a boy while working in his father's North Hollywood poultry processing plant. "I will never forget them bursting through the doors. I was terrified by it," he said. "And I thought, these poor people; they're here making a living supporting their families. It had a very deep impact on me throughout the years."
In a conversation this week, Mahony said that his decision to speak out against the Arizona statute grew, in part, "from the deep frustration all of us who've been working for comprehensive immigration reform now feel. We need the federal government to step up and fix this situation because the vacuum created by Washington's inaction invites the passage of more laws like this one."
The prelate's personal sense of the immigration situation's human consequences also has been sharpened by a personal project he's recently undertaken — a series of filmed conversations with immigrants who've come to this country without papers.
Although Mahony has gone about that work quietly, he said that "hearing these stories has given me a renewed understanding of what it means to live in our society's shadows, of the fear that's a daily fact of life for so many of our immigrant men and women and of how that fear is deepening."
The cardinal points out that as many as 10 million of the country's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in so-called blended families — those in which some members are citizens and others are not. "I recently spoke with a young woman, a second-year university student," he said. "Her father was deported a year or so ago and, now, every time her mother goes out the door, she and her sisters can't be sure that she'll ever come back. They live with a kind of low-level panic that no one should have to endure."
The cardinal described another conversation with a university graduate, brought to this country by his parents when he was 1 year old, who now can't find work because he lacks proper papers. Mahony also has recorded a conversation with a husband and wife who barely see each other because the husband, who is without papers, thinks it's safest for him to work only the graveyard shift.
Ultimately, the cardinal intends to edit these talks into a series that represents something of the complexity of the immigrant experience, which defies all attempts to reduce it to politics-as-usual. He plans to make the series available on DVD to schools and other groups.
"We want this debate to focus on real people where it belongs," he said, "because when it does, fear disappears."
That's a thing devoutly to be wished, for — as the Arizona debacle demonstrates — this is another of those instances in which fear is the enemy of both reason and justice.