Colorado Springs Catholic Bishop Michael Sheridan calls Jesus an itinerant rabbi. As a traveler who fled to Egypt to escape Herod's death threat thousands of years ago, Jesus the immigrant has become a powerful symbol for the Catholic Church's new immigrants' rights campaign.
"The image of the migrant is replete in Scripture," says Sheridan. "It becomes an example for how [Catholics] are to treat the foreigner in their own land."
In the past few months, Sheridan has worked with Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya and Denver Bishop Charles J. Chaput to organize immigration town hall meetings, where Catholic leaders share with the laity the moral and religious impetus for supporting immigrants' rights. They also offer parishioners ideas as to how they can fight restrictive politics on the state and local levels.
In a town hall meeting last week at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, Sheridan fielded questions about a federal immigration reform bill that could criminalize aid workers who help the undocumented.
"Would the diocese stop providing aid to illegal immigrants?" an audience member asked.
"No," answered Sheridan, to applause. "How can anyone stop us from carrying out the gospel of Jesus Christ?"
Working through the national Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, also called Justice for Immigrants, bishops across the country are articulating a series of policy recommendations that include a path to permanent residency, family reunification provisions, and labor protection for undocumented immigrants.
Sheridan squares the Church's recommendations with the Senate's version of immigration reform, which would provide an 11-year path to citizenship for immigrants who have been in the United States longer than five years.
"Whenever we find legislation that seems to do a good job of bringing together the principles of social justice, then we will support it," he says.
The House version of the immigration bill, which has yet to be reconciled with the Senate version, takes a harder line on undocumented immigrants, making it a felony to reside illegally in the United States.
If the House bill prevails, anyone who provides aid to undocumented immigrants could also face penalties, including clergy in the Church who create soup kitchens and sanctuaries for the immigrant poor. In Colorado, a proposed constitutional amendment would deny non-emergency medical and social services to illegal immigrants.
Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) who helped draft the House bill, has said the Catholic Church's immigrant rights campaign is run by "left-leaning religious activists" who want "blanket amnesty" for the undocumented.
"They put together a sloppy theological argument that concludes that if you are a religious person, you have to be in favor of amnesty," says Tancredo's spokesperson, Will Adams.
Father Francisco Quezada, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Colorado Springs, estimates that half his congregation is comprised of undocumented immigrants. In addition, he believes approximately 80 to 90 percent of his assembly hails from Central America and Mexico.
"We ask no questions about where they come from or who they are," Quezada says. "We open doors to the poor, and today the poor are the arriving immigrant.
""You are no longer a stranger,' we say. We offer them the opportunity to continue their faith journey and fulfill their Catholic obligations without the paperwork."
For instance, Quezada offers baptisms and Sunday school to immigrants, no matter their legal status.
"They come to God first as pilgrims," he says. "It behooves us to welcome them."