Illegal immigrants and their advocates, disappointed after a string of policy and legislative defeats this year, are now looking to Pope Benedict XVI's visit this spring as the best hope for a boost to their cause.
Some Catholic immigrants, along with advocates and representatives of the church, are predicting that the pope could take up the plight of illegal immigrants in America during his trip, reopening national debate over a touchy political topic as the presidential campaign heats up.
"We hope that he speaks for us, because he's someone who is higher up than we are. He can give us a hand," a Mexican immigrant, Andy Benitez, 26, said as he left morning Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 14th Street on Sunday.
"He has a lot of power. He could help us if he talked about it," Rodolfo Huepa, 38, also from Mexico, said. "It could finally be a positive thing."
Some advocates now say that a change to the immigration laws is unlikely until the end of the presidential campaign, as politicians try to avoid an issue that has its perils. Efforts to win congressional passage of a "comprehensive" immigration law that would have provided illegal immigrants with a path to legalization collapsed this summer, and Governor Spitzer earlier this month abandoned his plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Already, Senator Clinton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been criticized for hesitating about her opinion of Governor Spitzer's driver's license plan during a debate, while Mayor Giuliani, a candidate for the Republican nomination and a Catholic, has tried to square his past openness to illegal immigrants with his more recent hard-line stance.
But this pope's first visit to America as pontiff has the potential to bring the issue back from the dead. Benedict XVI will meet with President Bush at the White House on April 16 and will address the United Nations in New York on April 18. Representatives of the Catholic Church were hesitant to predict exactly what he might say, and were adamant that he would not take a position on any specific legislation. But they did suggest that it was likely he would bring up the immigration issue, which has long been a priority for American Catholics.
"Certainly the issue of immigration is one that is a very important issue for the Vatican. It is a very constant theme. It wouldn't surprise me if that were something that was mentioned," a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, which is coordinating the pope's New York stay, Joseph Zwilling, said.
"It's not wishful thinking," said the pastor of St. Brigid's Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Monsignor James Kelly, who can occasionally be found on the front lines of immigrant worker rallies in his parish. "I wouldn't expect him to have a statement on the New York State debate on driver's licenses, but we would hope that somehow his presence would enhance the efforts by the church to bring about a more just situation and to bring about some sort of immigration reform," he said.
The American Catholic Church, which is increasingly made up of Hispanics, was at the forefront of the failed push for the overhaul of federal immigration law. Meanwhile, the policy arm of the church in New York, the state Catholic Conference, was supportive of Governor Spitzer's license plan.
"Our belief is in the dignity of each person, no matter what country they come from. If the Holy Father were to speak on the topic, I would expect him to affirm those parts of our church teaching, and to speak of the gift and the blessing a country has when it is graced by immigrants from so many different countries," the executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Archdioceses of New York, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, said.
The pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which draws Mexicans from across the city because of its shrine to Mexico's patron saint, Kevin Nelan, said he believed the pope would "certainly mention the plight of illegal immigrants."
An Ecuadorian priest visiting the city for a religious festival over the weekend, Jose Valdivieso, said in Spanish that he "should talk about it because the people depend on him and our countries depend on these immigrants."
It is unclear what the impact could be if the pope were to discuss immigration, although it could force skittish political candidates to respond.
A spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, Dennis Poust, said he was reluctant to guess what the pope might say, but added, "Whatever topic he chooses to speak on could spur action just for the headlines it generates."
For a few immigrants, however, the thought that the pope would acknowledge their situation at all seemed to be enough.
"I would hope he talks about it, but the main thing is that he blesses us," said Erika Flores, 31, who is from Mexico.