BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Every Sunday, St. Joseph Church in east Bakersfield has an overflow crowd at its Spanish-language mass.
Like he's done for weeks, Father Miguel Flores has lead parishioners in praying for immigration reform that would legalize millions of people living in the United States without proper documentation.
"It is very important not just for the Catholic Church, but all churches all the religions to support this," Padre Miguel - as he is called by his flock - said during an interview Sunday.
The Catholic Church has been one of the staunchest supporters of immigrants, documented or not. Now, it is taking on a more active role in the contentious debate over immigration reform.
It is urging parishioners of all races to support legislation that leads to a pathway to citizenship for millions of men, women and children. In turn, parishioners would pressure their congressional representative to do the same.
Catholics are being urged to call, write and email their federal representatives by their parishioners. Some, though, accuse the Catholic Church of meddling in politics in violation of church and state.
"What we're talking about is speaking in the public square about political issues and moral values that are part of that," said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan with the Archdiocese of New York.
Whether the message will get through to congressional representatives is uncertain. California Congressman Jeff Denham told CBS news that securing the border is the No. 1 priority. Bakersfield Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy takes a similar stand on the issue.
But Denham has apparently had a change of heart. When asked at community forum on immigration held in the Central Valley town of Patterson whether he approved immigration reform legislation with a pathway to citizenship, Denham said "yes".
Demographics are another reason why the Catholic Church has an interest in immigration reform. Nationwide, 38 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic. Bakersfield is included in the Diocese of Fresno, which is home to more than 1 million Catholics, of which 75 percent are Hispanic.
"We are losing people," said Father Miguel. The pastor said some of his parishioners have been deported while others are in danger of being deported or in deportation proceedings.
Time is running out this year for Congress to act on an immigration reform bill. There are just 39 legislative days left until Congress adjourns for the year.