Moving, but not a knockout punch on immigration

     Pope Francis kisses a baby as he arrives to Independence Mall, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, before delivering a speech in front of Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

    Pope Francis kisses a baby as he arrives to Independence Mall, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, before delivering a speech in front of Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

    There’s no way you can call a live event with Pope Francis disappointing.

    But immigration activists who were expecting the pontiff to deliver a deep, impactful address on immigration at Independence Hall Saturday have to feel a little let down.

    This is clearly a subject dear to the pontiff. Francis called himself “the son of an immigrant family” in Washington, and as far back as 2013 he called the surge of Central American children crossing the border into the United States a “humanitarian emergency.”

    The Independence Hall speech was billed as an address on immigration and religious liberty, and immigration is a subject of much contentious debate these days, in arenas from the presidential campaign to the Syrian refuge crisis.

    I spoke Friday to veteran immigration attorney Jon Landau, who said he didn’t expect the pope to offer specific policy solutions. That’s not his role.

    But he said, the pope can deliver a message that immigrants are just like everybody else, and try to get people thinking about the subject in a different way. The model, he said, was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It was effective not because King talked about policy, but because he delivered a powerful moral message.

    The pope’s address at Independence Hall was clearly not such a speech. He spent most of it talking about the importance of religious liberty, connecting it with the founding principles of American democracy, and noting the symbolic power of the setting.

    He came to immigration at the end of his remarks, mostly by  speaking directly to the many immigrants and descendants of immigrants attending the event.

    He said he knew they’d endured many hardships to come and seek a better life. He urged them not to be discouraged, and to remember they had “many gifts” to bring to the country. And he urged them to be good citizens. “You  are called to be responsible citizens, as those who came before did,” he said.

    Again, it’s moving to be in the pope’s presence. He speaks and acts with such heartfelt sincerity that it seemed everyone came away happy and uplifted.

    But those looking for a game-changing speech on immigration will have to keep praying.

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