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April 18, 2014

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Immigration-reform supporters urge Las Vegas’ Catholic Church hierarchy: Speak up publicly, speak out publicly

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Christopher DeVargas

Bishop Joseph Pepe of the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas addresses about 1,500 valley residents who gathered to address community and family concerns, May 22, 2012. Members of local Christian, Jewish and Muslims organizations, along with other charitable and non-profit groups, addressed issues such as children’s safety, foreclosures, immigration, and education.

2013: May Day Rally and March

Roberto Jacobo returns a chant during a May Day rally and march for comprehensive immigration reform at St. Louis Square Wednesday, May 1, 2013. The event started at the George Federal Building downtown, then marchers traveled south on Las Vegas Boulevard, finishing with a rally at St. Louis Square near the Stratosphere. Launch slideshow »

After months of coordinated activities between immigration-reform activists and Catholic dioceses across the country, including a 150-mile march in Florida ending at a Catholic church, Las Vegas' Catholic reform advocates are asking why their own bishop is not marching beside them, as well.

Immigration activists and Catholics in the valley say Bishop Joseph Pepe has been a longtime supporter of reform. But in contrast to other bishops, the activists say, Pepe’s support is seen within the parishes he oversees but has not been adequately demonstrated to the public at large.

Alan Aleman, who attends Mass at St. Christopher Catholic Church in North Las Vegas, believes the Las Vegas Diocese should expand the radius of its message.

“At the Mass, they will pray for immigration reform, but when it comes to being active in a march or meetings, they’re not there,” said Aleman, who has received a work permit through deferred action for childhood arrivals. “Sure, they are doing things internally, but as far as being out in the public or in the media encouraging people to keep pushing for immigration reform, they are not doing as much as other faiths and Catholic leadership in other cities.”

The Las Vegas Diocese has 37 parishes spread over nearly 40,000 square miles in five Nevada counties. Twenty-four of those parishes are in Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas.

Deacon Tim O’Callaghan, who leads the Las Vegas Diocese’s social ministry, said the leadership here certainly is supportive of the reform effort but simply adheres to a different strategy.

“We prefer direct advocacy over public actions,” O’Callaghan said. “We’ve been involved in immigration reform since 2005, when it wasn’t even called immigration reform. We’ve advocated on Capitol Hill for immigrants as a worker-justice issue for years.”

Starting in September, Catholic dioceses across the country organized bold and public displays of support for reform. In Florida, a seven-day, 150-mile march across the state involving several religious leaders culminated with a rally at Tampa’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church led by St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles directed all 288 of his parishes in the nation’s largest diocese to address immigration reform in September.

In Phoenix, an immigration-reform rally that drew a reported 4,000 people began at a Catholic church where Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares addressed the crowd.

Reno Diocese offers contrast

Even in smaller dioceses, Catholic leaders have become more vocal in their advocacy.

Earlier in the summer, Friar Francisco Nahoe, director of St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral in Reno, recorded a radio spot imploring the community to support reform and contact Nevada’s 2nd District congressman, Republican Rep. Mark Amodei.

The Reno diocese also has joined a coalition of groups advocating for reform.

“The Catholic diocese in Reno has been very engaged and willing to work with coalition members,” said Cory Hernandez, a Reno-based immigration activist. “The church has been very active in the north, coordinating on events, contacting representatives and distributing materials.”

The Las Vegas Diocese chose not to participate in the Sept. 7-8 nationwide action. Pepe, however, issued a letter on immigration reform to be read to congregations in each of the diocese’s churches. O’Callaghan said the bishops conference chose a “random date” and there was no obligation to participate.

In Las Vegas, O’Callaghan said, church officials felt any efforts on behalf of immigration reform would be wasted while the nation’s focus was on the crisis in Syria.

That decision, activists said, was an example of how the diocese has kept its message insular.

In September, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote a letter advocating for reform that was published as an op-ed in the New York Daily News. Earlier this month, Colorado’s Catholic bishops published a letter of support for immigration reform in the Denver Post. No such effort in Las Vegas was made with Pepe’s letter.

Bishop 'a vocal supporter'

Kevin Appleby, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops director of migration policy and public affairs, says the conference allows each diocese to advocate for causes however it sees fit.

“Bishop Pepe has been a vocal supporter of immigration reform since the issue emerged on the national scene,” Appleby said. “Each diocese has its own approach; we just provide suggestions, materials and ideas.”

Appelby said the conference was attempting to broaden the reach of the bishops’ message.

“It’s not just Catholics we are focused on, we are focused on the general public, as well.” he said. “You need a coalition to make things happen because you can’t do it on your own. … But the bishops’ main responsibility is to Catholics, and that’s a big group to mobilize.”

Many local immigrant activists expressed a desire for Pepe to reach out to Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., a Catholic himself, the way the Reno Diocese put public pressure on Amodei.

O’Callaghan said he goes to Washington, D.C., every February to meet with Nevada’s congressional delegation, and they make their support for reform known. The diocese has not met with the delegation since the Senate and House reform bills were introduced, he said.

Nevadans for the Common Good, a coalition of faith-based groups including the Las Vegas Catholic Diocese that works on social issues, did meet this summer with Heck, a Henderson resident who represents the 3rd Congressional District.

Pepe, O’Callaghan said, has not personally contacted any of Nevada’s U.S. senators or representatives.

“The bishop reaches out through his staff, which is very small,” O’Callaghan said.

Evangelicals engaged in fight

While the Bishops in Reno, Phoenix and elsewhere have been open to coordinating with other immigration advocacy groups in their regions, Las Vegas activists say the local diocese has been reluctant to truly join forces.

On Monday, Bibles, Badges and Business — a coalition of Evangelical Christian organizations, law enforcement and business leaders — staged a conference on immigration at the Four Seasons. Later that night, the evangelical International Church of Las Vegas played host to a large rally with more than 20 different churches represented.

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, hoarse from a cross-country tour advocating for immigration reform, gave an impassioned speech at the Four Seasons conference.

“Silence is not an option. … We must ask ourselves what is necessary beyond immigration reform. We must pray, we must preach, and we must prophetically engage in activism. Let us a build a firewall of supporters,” he said.

Kathia Pereira, an immigration attorney and practicing Catholic, attended both the conference and the evangelical rally Monday. She came away wanting more from her leaders of her own faith.

“The diocese does support immigration reform. They just aren’t doing enough,” Pereira said.

Diocese urged to be more active

Pereira said her parish has promoted immigrant issues at Mass and helped her host a seminar for immigrants on avoiding legal fraud, but when it comes to joining the public push for reform, the Las Vegas Diocese loses its voice.

“Yes, the bishop says, ‘Read my letter in every Mass,’ but he’s not being active in the sense of the type of activism that we need to obtain immigration reform,” Pereira said. “We need a more active roll from the Catholic Church. … Bishop Pepe has been public in his support, but the question is why isn’t he being more demonstrative in his actions? Why isn’t he marching like the other heads of the church that are so active?”

Astrid Silva, organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, asked the evangelical leaders at the Four Seasons conference how she could get the Catholic diocese more involved.

Silva said PLAN had reached out to the diocese several times — for example to join vigils at Heck’s office, to attend rallies, to show a documentary film on immigration at a parish — but was always rebuffed.

“We’ve seen how involved the diocese is in Northern Nevada, and if Southern Nevada were equally involved, a lot more could be done,” Silva said. “This is an issue that has a lot to do with faith. People come here because they have faith that they can work for a better life. … (The diocese) reaching out to elected leaders can go a long way because their faith often informs how they vote.”

O’Callaghan said he was scheduled to provide the invocation at the most recent May Day March, but miscommunication with organizers meant he could not even get near the podium the day of the event.

Other times, rally organizers have not given enough notice to schedule a representative from the diocese, he said, or organizers have not communicated with the diocese at all.

The diocese has not reached out to the immigration reform groups directly, however, to express a desire to participate, O’Callaghan said.

Given the evangelical Christian community’s more vocal and public support for reform in Las Vegas, some Catholics have said the diocese risked losing parishioners. A third of Clark County is Hispanic — most of whom are Catholic — and immigration is a priority issue among Hispanics in political polling. Additionally, undocumented immigrants make up 7 percent of the population in Nevada, a larger percentage than in any other state.

“The Christians are out there in the community and participating,” Martin Macias, a Mexican immigrant living in Las Vegas, said in Spanish. “I never see the Catholic Church giving public speeches or marching with us. I’m very disappointed because I don’t see action on their part.”

O’Callaghan said the church had to budget its limited resources wisely and was looking forward to more advocacy work as Capitol Hill returns its attention to immigration after ending the federal shutdown.

“We have a strategy of advocacy, and we think it’s more effective,” O’Callaghan said. “It doesn’t make for good news headlines, but we think it’s effective in terms of reaching the ultimate objective.”

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