The British media is today reporting -- favorably here, less so here -- that the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is backing a call by London’s mayor for a pathway into citizenship for Britain’s 600,000-odd long-term undocumented migrants.
In reality, it should be the other way round: the mayor, Boris Johnson, has come round to supporting a proposal first mooted by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor at a Mass for Migrant Workers in May 2006.
The story of how the Cardinal’s call became a national campaign which has secured the backing of London’s mayor involves declaring an interest: I have been the co-ordinator of that campaign by the UK capital’s biggest "broad-based" organisation, London Citizens.
Strangers into Citizens -- the campaign name -- took its inspiration from Catholic social teaching and the naturalisation campaigns of the US, notably the US bishops’ "Strangers no longer" document. But the example most cited by the campaign has been that of Spain, which in 2005 regularised 700,000 people in modern Europe’s most successful "immigrant amnesty".
In May 2007, Strangers into Citizens brought together faith leaders, trade unionists, politicians and businessmen in Trafalgar Square to address a crowd of 20,000 calling for the measure. Since then, the campaign has advanced further and quicker than many had hoped.
In April, prior to the London mayoral elections, London Citizens organized an assembly of 2,500 people drawn from the capital’s churches, mosques and schools to put to mayoral candidates the four priorities of Londoners on wages, housing, safety and immigration.
That is how Boris Johnson, the election’s victor, came to endorse the London Living Wage and the Strangers into Citizens proposals. Over the summer, he announced the new Living Wage rate -- amazing many on the Left. Last Friday, he earned the ire of right-wing newspapers when he said in a television interview the deportation of London’s 400,000 "illegal immigrants" is "just not going to happen" -- and argued in favour of an "earned amnesty".
After a period of about five years, he said, individuals could "show their commitment to this society and to this economy" to earn the right to stay. (Interview here.)
On Sunday, meanwhile, the shortly-to-be-retired Archbishop of Westminster repeated his conviction that "after a certain time a way should be given for [long-term undocumented migrants] to receive citizenship here and so get the benefits of that." Since March 2008, this has been the policy of the bishops of England and Wales.
Both Cardinal and Mayor are courageously naming the elephant in the sitting room -- the fact that most migrants will not be deported. They are starting from realities, and proposing a humanizing measure in the place of the dehumanizing limbo of now.
They are both risking opprobium in order to identify with a vulnerable sector of the population; but there is a measure of self-interest in both cases. The Cardinal wants to identify with a central concern of an expanding group within his Church. The mayor wants to show he is close to the values of Londoners, who are far more immigrant-friendly than in the rest of the country.
That is why the attacks on them will not hurt them in the eyes of the people with whom they want to identify.