A Democratic National Committee (DNC) radio ad claims Republicans would "criminalize...churches just for giving communion" to illegal aliens. The claim is nonsense. The House bill to which the ad refers doesn't say that. Both the Republican sponsors of the bill and the Bush administration have made clear that's not the bill's intent.
The House bill would make it a crime for anyone who "assists, encourages, directs or induces" an illegal immigrant to remain in the US. That's not much different from current law, which makes it a crime to "encourage or induce" an illegal immigrant to stay.
The Democratic National Committee announced a Spanish-language radio ad titled "Tough and Smart" for a week beginning April 19, scheduled to run in Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona and on Univision Radio affiliates nationally. It will be aired in English on Caribbean-American radio stations.
The DNC ad claims: "Republicans and President Bush supported an immigration reform plan that would criminalize immigrants, families, doctors, and even churches just for giving communion." It's true that House Republicans passed a bill that would make it a felony to be in the country without permission, but the notion that it would "criminalize . . . churches just for giving communion" is nonsense.
The House bill makes no mention of communion, churches or clergy, and both the bill's sponsors and the Bush administration have stated publicly they have no intention of prosecuting clergy for ministering to illegals.
The bill (HR 4437) would provide prison terms for anyone who "assists, encourages, directs, or induces" an illegal immigrant to stay in the US. That's not much different from current law, which makes it illegal to "encourage or induce" an illegal immigrant to come or stay in the US.
Adding the word "assists" has led critics to say that the bill would criminalize humanitarian acts, and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York even went so far as to say on March 23 that the House measure would "probably" criminalize "even Jesus himself." Senate Republicans have added a provision to their immigration bill that specifically exempts humanitarian assistance.
The DNC supports their ad's "communion" claim by citing a Dec. 30 letter from Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney to President Bush. In the letter Mahoney says:
Cardinal Mahoney: One could interpret this Bill to suggest that any spiritual and pastoral service given to any person requires proof of legal residence. Are we to stop every person coming to Holy Communion and first ask them to produce proof of legal residence before we can offer them the Body and Blood of Christ?
However, Mahoney's statement is not fact, it is a personal interpretation which he made for political effect, as he explained in a an interview with National Public Radio on March 29:
NPR: You raised a lot of eyebrows when you said you would not adhere to a provision in the House Bill that would make it a crime to assist an illegal immigrant. Do you really think that this part of the bill, that the crafters of this bill were targeting clergy?...
Cardinal Mahoney: Well, I made the statement primarily to show if you trail this argument out to its completion you then start including all kinds of people...I did it on purpose to show if you carry it to its extreme how ludicrous the argument is.
House Republicans and the Bush administration quickly rebutted Mahoney's claim. On April 5 Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin (the bill's lead sponsor) joined with Rep. Peter King of New York and Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Sensenbrenner/King/Hyde Letter: We can assure you, just as under current law, religious organizations would not have to "card" people at soup kitchens and homeless shelters under the House bill's anti-smuggling provisions. Prosecutors would no sooner prosecute good Samaritans for "assisting" illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under the House bill than they would prosecute such persons for encouraging illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under current law, which has existed for nearly 20 years.
The next day Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing, denied that humanitarian workers and members of the clergy could be penalized under the House bill. Questioned by Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, he said:
Rep. Forbes: If that provision [assisting an illegal alien to stay in the United States] were passed...by the House of Representatives, would the Department of Justice prosecute priests and doctors who provided humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants?
Gonzales: No we would not.
Forbes: Has the Department of Justice ever prosecuted individuals who have provided purely humanitarian relief to illegal immigrants?
Gonzales: No, I don't believe so.
The ad also misleads by saying broadly that "Republicans and President Bush" support the supposed criminalization of clergy offering communion. In fact, Senate Republicans included in their bill a clause that specifically exempts "emergency humanitarian assistance, including emergency medical care and food" to help illegal immigrants, so long as it is not done for compensation.
Democrats are still prone to exaggeration on that point, however. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton even said at a news conference March 23 that the House bill would criminalize anyone helping or responding in a humanitarian way to needs of immigrants. She added, "It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture, because this bill would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."