(RNS) — Blues legend Robert Johnson, the story goes, made a deal with the devil and sold his soul on a Mississippi highway to play virtuoso guitar. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s musical tastes reportedly lean more toward Metallica than the Delta blues, but he faces a crossroads of his own that will test whether he will trade in his values to the nativist wing of the Republican Party or do what’s right for young immigrants.
The fate of nearly 800,000 “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States as children, remains uncertain after President Trump rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy that provided protection from deportation. The president gave Congress until March 5 to find a solution.
This is now the most urgent moral challenge our national leaders face.
More than 100 young immigrants a day lose protection and the ability to work legally. It's both cruel and reckless to tear immigrants from jobs, families and communities. These idealistic, resourceful and patriotic young men and women contribute to our country. Our future is stronger because of them. As President Trump might put it, they make America great.
Speaker Ryan is now the most important leader in determining their future.
If the Senate passes bipartisan legislation that provides them with legal status, it’s probable that a majority of representatives in the House would also do so as part of a package that includes border security measures. Ryan would then have to decide whether to allow a vote or cave to extreme, nativist politicians. It’s not only a political test for Ryan, but more importantly a test of his faith and values.
A proud Catholic, Ryan speaks often about his Church, has traded letters with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and enjoys name-dropping Thomas Aquinas. But his policy priorities often clash with traditional Catholic social teaching.
Ryan and President Trump are getting an earful from Catholic bishops, nuns and other Catholic leaders. The president’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected Dreamers, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, was “reprehensible ... a heartbreaking moment in our history, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”
In a New York Daily News op-ed last week, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn kept the pressure on. “There are times that our elected leaders must act because it is the right thing to do as human beings,” the bishop wrote. “This is one of those times. If the Dreamers are left unprotected, it will leave a stain on our nation’s character for years to come.”
Today, the nation’s largest umbrella group of Catholic nuns (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious), the Franciscan Action Network, the Catholic social justice lobbying group NETWORK, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and other Catholic advocates will hold a prayer service for Dreamers on the U.S. Capitol lawn.
Catholic university presidents have consistently urged Congress to protect DACA-holders. “Fear has been a constant companion for my students and other Dreamers since the 2016 election,” Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity University, a Catholic college in Washington, D.C., wrote in The Hill newspaper. “The same politicians who claim to be ardently ‘pro-life’ think nothing of tearing families apart, deporting people to unspeakable violence and poverty.”
Ryan has heard a persistent moral drumbeat in his own district. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Dreamers and other immigrants — including a parishioner at Ryan’s church who holds DACA status – held a vigil in front of his home in Janesville.
If Ryan considers himself a person of faith who cares about family values, he should keep his promises. Last year, during a CNN town hall meeting, an undocumented immigrant mother brought to the United States as an 11-year-old asked Ryan whether she and “many families in my situation” should face deportation. “What we have to do is find a way to make sure that you can get right with the law,” he assured her, “and we’ve got to do this so that the rug doesn’t get pulled out from you and your family gets separated.”
Ryan has also said that Dreamers should “rest easy,” because the GOP-controlled Congress will find a solution.
In a few days, Ryan will be one of many Christians around the world observing Ash Wednesday, a day of atonement and reflection. It's an especially timely moment for the powerful speaker to examine his conscience — and consider whether his legacy will be about action that leads to justice or mere empty words.
(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of "The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope's Challenge to the American Catholic Church." The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)