Face It, Sen. Toomey, You’re a Cafeteria Catholic Like the Rest of Us

Philly should not be a "sanctuary city," says Republican incumbent. That's not very Catholic of him.

“I was born and raised Catholic. I am a practicing Catholic. We are active members of our church. Our kids attend Catholic school, so my faith is a part of who I am. What I have learned through faith helps inform my judgment on many, many issues. It’s hard to quantify, but my faith is an important source of informing my judgment.”

The preceding quote is one of Pat Toomey’s responses to a candidates’ questionnaire prepared by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office of Communications and and published in the Catholic Standard & Times October 28, 2010, edition, just prior to the election in which he eked out a victory over Admiral Joe Sestak to claim the U.S. Senate seat for Pennsylvania.

Truth is, no Catholic disputed his religious bona fides — he was outspoken about his pro-life views, and had long been a supporter of school choice and the vouchers that favor archdiocesan education. Since then he’s taken a number of stands that he (and other conservative Catholics) have characterized as safeguarding religious liberties and practice — including efforts to exempt religious employers from carrying insurance that covers birth control and opposing discrimination laws that include LGBTQ protections. He is not — by many Pennsylvania Catholics’ accounting — a “cafeteria Catholic,” that is, someone who has cherry-picked which issues to stand Catholic about.

Well … except for immigration. 

And after this Monday’s announcement calling for Philadelphia to end its “sanctuary city” policy, I really do think Toomey has to stop hyping his Catholic cred and face the fact that he’s as cafeteria as the rest of us.

For decades the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has sounded the alarm and opposed processes that criminalize and discriminate against undocumented immigrants, clearly stating in its 2003 document Strangers No Longer: “Alarmingly, migrants often are treated as criminals by civil enforcement authorities. Misperceptions and xenophobic and racist attitudes in both the United States and Mexico contribute to an atmosphere in which undocumented persons are discriminated against and abused.”

The policy that makes Philadelphia a “sanctuary city” is one that prohibits local law enforcement from honoring Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds (which, as described by Joseph Montano of the ACLU, “are requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to voluntarily keep a person in custody while ICE searches for evidence that would support deportation”), without first producing a judicial warrant for the detainer. ICE holds issued without judicial warrants not only savage due process (in violation of the Fourth Amendment), they lead to a type of de facto criminalization and profiling of anyone who is suspected of being undocumented.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee Immigration and Border Security in 2015, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Arizona — representing the USCCB — stated the Church’s opposition to any legislation that “would permit state and local law enforcement officers, untrained in federal immigration law, to issue an immigration hold and detain an individual […] Such an unprecedented transfer of authority could lead to civil rights abuses and discrimination against immigrants and legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens.”

Again in 2015, the USCCB argued in Unlocking Human Dignity, that the immigrant detention processes themselves are deeply unjust and must be reformed: “Each year DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) holds hundreds of thousands of non-citizens and the occasional U.S. citizen, many for extended periods, in prisons, jails and other secure facilities where their lives are governed by standards designed for criminal defendants. Detention brands immigrants as criminals in the public’s eye and contributes to the sense that they deserve to be treated as such. In many respects, immigrant detainees are treated less favorably than criminal defendants.”

It is interesting to note that the 2010 Toomey of the aforementioned questionnaire favored a path to citizenship … but in the intervening years the GOP discourse about undocumented immigrants has gotten increasingly shrill and punitive. Standing by Toomey’s side at his Monday announcement was Philadelphia State Representative Martina White, who recently introduced an anti-sanctuary city bill into the state legislature, and whose reaction to being confronted on it by immigration advocates is nothing if not epic theater of shrill.

Meantime, the Catholic teaching that the very Catholic Toomey has chosen to ignore is one Archbishop Charles Chaput articulated in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia: “With the Holy Family as her ‘model and protector of every migrant, alien, and refugee,’ the Church is committed to helping migrants with the resources needed for their well-being. The duty and the privilege of that commitment apply to all of us equally.”

Estela Hernández, a leader in the interfaith New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, as well as an undocumented immigrant and a member of Visitation B.V.M. Parish, put in very personal terms the cost of what Toomey proposes: “If Philadelphia stops being a sanctuary city, we will not feel safe to leave our homes, or to live a normal life. If Senator Toomey is Catholic, he should give people a second chance.  He should put himself in our shoes, to understand our sufferings, and should know we love our kids the same as he loves his kids.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian US, AL DÍA News, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.