For today's Common Good Forum, we feature an essay by Dr. Julia Young of The Catholic University of America. In her essay, Young takes us through a brief survey of how the Catholic Church in the United States has been advocating for Latino immigrants for the better part of our nation's history.

As the current refugee crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border unfolds, U.S. Catholic bishops, agencies, and community-based groups have responded with advocacy on the migrants’ behalf and outreach to assist with their welfare. In doing so, the U.S. Catholic Church is building on a longer history of assisting Latino migrants – the vast majority of them Mexican – both along the border and in the U.S. Southwest.

Between 1900 and 1965, bishops and laypeople within the U.S. Catholic Church played a crucial role as advocates for Mexican migrants. During this period, the Church was motivated by three major concerns. The most important of these was social welfare: Key papal encyclicals such as Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931) called for the just and humane treatment of working people, and urged Catholics to work to improve the capitalist system, particularly with regards to labor exploitation. A second, related concern was the racism, discrimination, and prejudice that many Mexican migrants faced. The third concern was Protestant evangelization within the Mexican community, which was already ongoing during the first half of the 20th century

Granted, Catholic bishops at the time did not always have a perfect record in speaking out against these problems: initially, there was considerable debate within the Church about how to meet the needs of Mexican migrants. But the three examples I will discuss here, demonstrate important moments where the Church and its representatives helped to advance Mexican (and eventually Latino) civil rights.

Part I: The Catholic Church Extension Society

Until 1848, most of the U.S. Southwest belonged to Mexico. So, for many Mexicans, they did not cross the border; The border crossed them. After the loss of that land to the United States in 1848, more Mexicans began migrating into what had formerly been their territory and, beginning in the late 1800s, the numbers increased as migrants began coming north primarily to take jobs with railroads, at copper mines, and in agriculture. The violence and disruption of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) sent new waves of refugees and labor migrants to the United States. During that conflict, there was frequent anticlerical persecution as well; some 500 refugee priests, nuns and bishops fled the country.

At the same time that these new arrivals were coming, the U.S. Church was expanding in the Southwest and other rural areas. Many of these migrants were extremely poor, and those in the Southwest were no exception. To serve the needs of the new dioceses being erected throughout the Southwest – most of which lacked personnel, money, and even buildings – Father Francis Clement Kelley, a Catholic priest in Michigan, established The Catholic Church Extension Society on October 18, 1905.

Using funds donated by Catholics from the wealthier urban parishes of the East Coast and Midwest, and channeled through the American Board of Catholic Missions, the Society helped to construct new churches, educate and support clergy and seminarianswho could serve in the rural parishes, and gave assistance to the needy dioceses. Famously, the Society made use of a relatively new technology, the automobile, to provide “chapel cars” and “motor chapels” in places where there were no churches. Priests also rode the railways in Extension’s three rail cars to celebrate masses in remote towns and villages.

Father Kelly,was particularly interested in Mexican Catholics, whom, he noted, “are without schools [or] churches” and lived in the poorest dioceses. Under Kelley, Extension assisted in financing churches and schools across rural Texas, which would primarily serve the new waves of Mexican migrants arriving during the Mexican Revolution. The Extension Society raised millions of dollars to fund church growth in the region (although not all of this went to Mexican parishes).

Father Kelley also paid particular attention to clerical and religious exiles during the Revolution. Soliciting funds from affluent Catholics, Kelly raised thousands of dollars to provide the exiles – who included not only bishops, but entire convents of nuns, as well as priests and seminarians – with shelter, food and clothing. He also helped to relocate them to various parishes, convents, and other residences in the United States. He also helped relocate a large group of Mexican seminarians, establishing the St. Philip Neri Seminary in Castroville, Texas in 1915.There, nearly 80 priests were ordained, many of whom returned to Mexico after the Revolution.

Finally, using the platform of the Society’s widely read magazine, Extension, Fr. Kelley undertook a publicity campaign that highlighted anticlerical persecutions during the Mexican Revolution, taking testimony from displaced Catholics and using it to write his polemical books, Blood-Drenched Altars and The Book of Red and Yellow. He would continue to advocate for Mexican Catholics well into the 1930s.

Part II: The NCWC Immigration Bureau

By the 1920s, as Southern Europeans and other migrant groups from Europe were restricted from entering the country due to new, punitive immigration laws, Mexican migration increased sharply. This is the period sometimes known as the first “Great Migration,” when hundreds of thousands of Mexicans crossed into the United States to take jobs in railroads, agriculture, and industry. This decade also saw Mexican migrants settling in more diverse urban areas, including Chicago, Detroit, and other cities of the Midwest, as well as the more traditional locations in the U.S. Southwest.

The 1920-1940 period also saw the growth of immigration laws and restrictions. Whereas the U.S.-Mexico border had been almost completely unguarded before the 1920s, the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 meant that Mexicans were increasingly asked to show visas, pay for permits, and pass inspection before coming in to the U.S. Increasing numbers of Mexicans were refused entry. In addition, yet another violent conflict – the Catholic rebellion known as the Cristero War – created new flows of religious refugees. And after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Mexican immigrants became scapegoats for widespread joblessness and local budget shortfalls. In many instances, Mexican migrants were rounded up and deported by local authorities – often despite the fact that they (or their children) were US citizens.

All of these challenges at the border called out for a response by the U.S. Catholic Church, which was well aware of, and concerned with, the “problem” of the growing Mexican migrant population. As discussed in the previous essay by Maria Mazzenga, the National Catholic Welfare Conference had been dealing with immigrant/ethnic issues since its inception in 1919. In 1920, the NCWC established a Bureau of Immigration to assist immigrants to the United States. The Bureau launched a port assistance program that met incoming ships, helped immigrants through the immigration process and provided loans to them.  It would even fill out paperwork, appeal to immigration authorities on behalf of individual migrants, and help with visa applications.

Local offices were established all over the United States but the most important of these for Latino immigrants was in El Paso. The El Paso office was established in November 1922, and the Bureau’s office in El Paso was put in charge of the entire Mexican border, from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California (a smaller “sister” office operated out of Juarez, Mexico).

In its first 14 years of operation, the El Paso office handled a total of 95,695 cases. As with the rest of the Immigration Bureau, all of the cases that the El Paso office handled were pro bono. There, the office offered assistance to detained immigrants; furnished clothing to those in need; helped them to prepare affidavits or other legal papers; and forwarded information to the Washington office in order for its legal staff to be able to submit appeals.

During the Cristero war period, the El Paso office was run by CleofasCalleros, a Mexican native who had immigrated to the US as a child. In 1926, Calleros--a devout Catholic--became the Mexican border representative of the Bureau of Immigration office, and worked in that position until his retirement in 1968. During the same time period, he also served as the secretary and assistant to the Bishop of El Paso, Anthony J. Schuler, himself an important advocate for the Mexican migrant population.

As one of the relatively few sources of help for Mexican immigrants at this time, Calleros had his hands full at the El Paso Immigration Bureau, where he helped immigrants pay their $8 “head tax” and to fill out consular visas. Additionally, Calleros and his office produced educational materials for migrants, such as a pamphlet that explained the U.S. laws and offering words of counsel and warning and providing the address of the NCWC’s Office of Immigration in Juarez.              

When Mexico’s Cristero war began, the numbers of immigrants passing through El Paso and the rest of the southern border increased significantly. So Calleros and the Bureau took charge of the legalization, placement, and procurement of funding for the hundreds of priests and religious that crossed the border during the years of persecution, particularly during 1926-1929. Often penniless, the refugee religious had to obtain the proper visas, and then be housed and given some kind of occupation. The paperwork was often challenging, for many religious crossed illegally due to the urgency of their situation. Funding was also difficult. Calleros remembered later that he once “had 27 nuns in my home for two weeks. They slept on the rug.”

Calleros was outspoken in his beliefs about the need for the better-off to help the Mexican community, and he saw it as the duty of Catholics in Texas, particularly in the face of efforts by Protestants to minister to (and convert) poor Mexicans. When addressing the National Convention of Catholic Women in 1936, he asked: “What could be most pleasing to our Mother church, than to do something for our unfortunates; in uplifting their condition in life and thus save them to the Church. Remember that other groups are working amongst them and sooner or later are lost to our cause.”

Furthermore, Calleros could accurately be labeled an early civil rights activist. In 1936, he successfully campaigned against color classification of Mexicans by government authorities in the United States, and throughout his career he frequently spoke out against discrimination towards Mexicans. He also advocated improvement of education, stating that “the educational facilities afforded Mexican children as a whole, [are] a disgrace to the State of Texas and we as citizens, by our race prejudice and egotistical actions, make such things possible in our communities.”

Throughout the rest of his life, Calleros would continue to advocate for Mexicans, and his  work with the Immigration Bureau is still remembered by the Mexican community in El Paso. 

Part III: Archbishop Robert E. Lucey

By the 1940s, the U.S. economy was experiencing a wartime boom. Consequently, there was a great need for labor, both in agriculture and in industry. Mexican migrants, who had been deported in great numbers during the Depression, were suddenly in demand once again, especially to replace the native-born male population which had been drafted in the war. In August 1942, the U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement to launch a guest worker program, known as the Bracero Program. By 1964, when the program ended, more than 4.5 million Mexicans had participated as braceros.

Unfortunately, the Bracero Program also spurred a simultaneous growth in undocumented immigration. Unscrupulous recruiters hired migrants without visas to the U.S., where they were often paid lower than the going rate for braceros. By the early 1950s, there was growing public concern about undocumented Mexican migrants in the United States, and in 1954, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were deported in a roundup called Operation Wetback. This was not the only problem facing Mexican migrants in the United States during this period; many Mexican migrants faced deep-seated racism and segregation as they tried to adjust to life in the U.S.

Catholic bishops in the U.S., led by Archbishop Robert E. Lucey of San Antonio, became increasingly concerned about the systematic mistreatment of Mexican immigrants. Originally from Los Angeles, Lucey had been director of Catholic Charities there during the 1920s. He was also a member of the Labor Bureau in California, where he saw firsthand the long working hours, harsh conditions, and poor pay of Mexican laborers. Later, as bishop in Amarillo, Texas, Lucey became an outspoken advocate of the labor movement.

In San Antonio, Lucey began working to improve conditions for workers, especially those from the large Mexican-origin population in the city, which was disproportionately poor. Soon after his arrival, he organized the Catholic Welfare Bureau, the Catholic Action Office, and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Men. He also sponsored a summer school of social justice for the clergy of the Southwest.

In 1945, Lucey helped to found the Bishops’ Committee for the Spanish-Speaking, which he would direct for over 20 years. (Today it is the Bishops Committee for Hispanic/Latino Affairs). The Committee was established to promote the “spiritual and social welfare of Catholics of Spanish or Mexican ancestry living in the region.” Later, he established regional officesand formed the Catholic Council for the Spanish Speaking (CCSS) for the priests, religious, and laity worked within Latino communities. 

Through the BCSS, Lucey became an outspoken advocate for labor rights, particularly as they affected Mexican workers. In 1950, Lucey and the BCSS advocated for the rights of agricultural workers, and he would later testify at congressional hearings investigating labor conditions among this group. Later, in 1963, Luceypublicly supported grape pickers in central California, commenting encouragingly on Cesar Chavez of the National Farm Workers Association and the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee.

In San Antonio, Lucey focused on expanding the physical presence of the Catholic Church within the Mexican communities in San Antonio. He oversaw the construction of 30 new parishes between 1945-1969; many of these were Mexican. He also oversaw the preservation of the historic missions. In addition to the churches, Luceyestablished clinics and hospitals, orphanages and schools, and childcare centers. Throughout these building projects, Lucey insisted that any laborers working for the Church be paid union wages, and required that companies provide him with proof to that effect. 

Lucey also made a marked effort to highlight cultural aspects of Mexican Catholicism. He strongly encouraged (and sometimes required) priests to speak Spanish; he also began a diocesan celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national patroness, in 1950. Finally, Lucey enacted desegregation in his parochial schools in 1953; he also advocated for the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.

Despite his consistent advocacy for workers’ rights and civil rights, Lucey’s politics did not align neatly with many other activists of the day. He backed the Vietnam War long after many of his parishioners and even Pope Paul VI voiced objections to that war. And when two of his most popular priests joined a farm worker strike without his authorization, he removed and demoted them. In the end, strong pressure from his priests and parishioners forced his retirement in 1969.


After the mid-1960s, Mexican and Latino immigration to the United States would continue to grow. Unfortunately, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act – which made it easier for people from the rest of the world to immigrate to the United States legally – also helped prompt a steep rise in undocumented migration, since the law instituted a sharp limit on migrants from within the Western Hemisphere. As a result, the number of undocumented migrants tripled by the 1970s, and has continued its steep ascent. The U.S. government’s policy has been to steadily increase border security, but unfortunately, the humanitarian problems along the border have only grown worse with each passing decade.

Still, by the late 1960s, a precedent had been set for the Catholic Church by the individuals discussed above, and many others as well: to respond with compassion to migrants in need, and to seek relief for refugees along the border. 

For further reading:

David Badillo, Latinos and the New Immigrant Church. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Julia G. Young "Cristero Diaspora: Mexican Immigrants, The US Catholic Church, and Mexico's Cristero War, 1926-29." The Catholic Historical Review 98.2 (2012): 271-300.