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GOP May Be in for a Rude Awakening on Immigration When Pope Francis Addresses Congress

The pontiff may deliver a stronger rebuke on immigration than the GOP and White House expect.

VATICAN-US-POPE-OBAMA
Pope Francis (R) and US President Barack Obama laugh as they exchange gifts during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. The meeting at the Vatican comes as a welcome rest-stop for Obama during a six-day European tour dominated by the crisis over Crimea, and the US leader will doubtless be hoping some of the pope's overwhelming popularity will rub off on him. AFP PHOTO POOL / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis in September will head to the United States for a trip that will include addresses to the United Nations and a joint session of Congress. Speaker of the House John Boehner, himself a Catholic, has welcomed rapturously the pontiff’s visit to Capitol Hill, but the message Francis will likely deliver may not sit so well with Boehner, his caucus, or even the White House.

Since assuming the papacy in 2013, Francis has made poverty and income inequality the centerpieces of his public teachings, criticizing “people who only see in immigration a source of illegality, social conflict and violence” and speaking out against “policies of self-interest” along international borders. When thousands of unaccompanied minors streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border, he described the situation as a “humanitarian emergency” and argued that the children should be “be welcomed and protected.”

Though the bulk of his advocacy on the issue hasn’t been directed at the United States, Francis’s criticisms toward world governments’ treatment of migrants stands in stark contrast to recent U.S. policy. Boehner and the Republican Party have taken a hardline position on immigration, and the Obama administration has deported a record number of unauthorized immigrants, falling far short of the policy of broad acceptance the Vatican has called for. (President Barack Obama has signed executive action allowing hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to apply for work permits, but that effort is tied up in court, excludes large parts of the undocumented population, and did not include a path to citizenship.)

“The pope is quite well known for being rather direct, I don’t think he’s going to let the people who invited him off the hook,” David Hollenbach, an expert on Christian social ethics and human rights at Boston College, told Foreign Policy. “I don’t think this is going to be a nice, smooth photo opportunity for politicians if he says the kind of things I suspect he’s going to say.”

Indeed, the White House may be using the visit to contrast its approach to immigration with its opponents on Capitol Hill and announced Thursday that Obama will meet with Francis during his visit. “The pope is highly conscious of the fact that millions of Hispanics are here without citizenship, and most are Catholic,” a senior democratic strategist with ties to the Obama administration told the Washington Post. In a statement, the White House said that the president and the pontiff would discuss “shared values,” including “welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

Even as the Obama administration seeks to hitch its approach to immigration to Francis’s star power, it may find the Catholic leader to the left of its own position. “I think the Pope would have pretty high expectations for what a country like the United States can and should do about the problem of immigration,” said J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of the practice of religion and public life at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The Catholic position has called for a much more expansive approach to immigration than any U.S. legislation being proposed in the last five years.

Francis has enjoyed immense popularity in the United States, with nine-in-ten Catholics and seven-in-ten members of the general population rating him favorably.

The pope’s visit will offer a moment of celebration for U.S. Catholics, including on Capitol Hill, where one in three members of Congress are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. It was Boehner who extended the invitation to Francis to address Congress, the first time a pontiff has spoken before the body. “In a time of global upheaval, the Holy Father’s message of compassion and human dignity has moved people of all faiths and backgrounds,” Boehner said in a statement announcing the address.

Nonetheless, Francis will deliver a blow to Republicans if he uses his time on Capitol Hill to deliver an excoriating speech on immigration. After all, it was Boehner who helped engineer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deeply controversial address to Congress on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s likely more than one critic hoping that Boehner’s own religious leader will deliver poetic justice.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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