THE POWER OF IMMIGRANT CATHOLICS. The Catholic Church's welcome support for Mexican immigrants to the U.S., both legal and illegal, has occasioned much speculation about the potential of immigration policy to become a wedge issue driving apart Catholics and Evangelicals, who have been more united than not on a host of other hot-button issues in recent years. The one question I haven't seen answered yet, though, is to what extent the Catholic Church's support for illegal immigrants is a result of noble principle in regards to treatment of the poor and justice for immigrants, and to what extent it's a product of equally valid self-interest in maintaining and defending vibrant congregations.

Mexico is the second-most populous Catholic nation in the world, and many of the most Catholic counties in America lie along the Mexican border. Los Angeles, whose Cardinal Roger Mahony has led the charge on behalf of illegal immigrants, is 40 percent Catholic, and also the single largest diocese in America; an estimated three quarters of L.A. Catholics are Hispanic. California is anywhere from one-quarter to one-third Catholic, depending on which survey you look at, and I wouldn't be the least surprised if much of the continuing strength of the Catholic Church in California were due to the influx of immigrants into the state from Mexico. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 71 percent of the growth in the U.S. Catholic population nationwide since 1960 has come from Hispanics.

What this means, basically, is that the future of Catholicism in the U.S. is in the hands of Hispanics, and any effort to reduce the number of Mexican immigrants -- 95 percent of Mexicans are Catholic -- winds up also being a direct assault on the growth and power of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

I have trouble believing that Republican strategists didn't think this through before going off on their current crusade against illegal immigrants. It is, after all, one thing to go after a legally and electorally powerless group that is also poor and unable to defend itself in English -- and quite another to set up a policy war with Rome.

--Garance Franke-Ruta

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