Maggie Jane Elmore

Published on August 22, 2016

Maggie Elmore is a doctoral candidate in US history at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s a former Harry Middleton Fellow in Presidential Studies and a current research fellow at the Bancroft Library. She is currently completing a dissertation, “Claiming the Cross: How Ethnic Mexicans, the Church, and the State Forged an Alliance that Transformed America’s Most Powerful Church, 1923-1986” under the direction of Mark Brilliant. Her scholarship examines how the forging of a church-state partnership between the US federal government and the US Catholic Church impacted ethnic Mexicans – both US citizens and non-citizen residents – and how ethnic Mexicans strategically used that alliance to fight for a more inclusive Catholic Church and US society during the twentieth century.


An interview by Noémie Charest-Bourdon, in preparation of the communication to be given on September 2 at 11 a.m. entitled Immigrant Rights as Civil Rights: Ethnic Mexican Organizations, Catholic Social Services, and the Limits of Title VII.


Noémie Charest-Bourdon: In your presentation, you will be speaking of voluntary agencies and their involvement with Mexican migrants. What brought you there and what perspectives do you explore?

Maggie Jane Elmore: Before coming to UC Berkeley I completed an undergraduate degree in the history of religion and a Master’s degree in history at Texas Tech University. While living in rural West Texas, I became especially interested in the institutions that played a role in the continued social and economic disparities in the region. In the presentation I focus primarily on the prospective of state and organizational actors. I examine the interaction between Catholic Charities, the agency contracted by the US federal government to process the largest number of amnesty applications, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), an organization formed in the 1970s to pursue the civil rights interests of Mexican Americans. As is so often the case, the archival records of politically marginalized persons are difficult to find. In this case, I use MALDEF’s client records to bring forward the experiences of undocumented immigrants who were directly impacted by this law.

When the Regan administration named Catholic Charities the primary application processing agency for undocumented immigrants, MALDEF was furious. The organization mounted a massive public appeal campaign to try and get the administration to reverse the decision. They claimed that the contract violated the spirit of the separation of church and state and that the Catholic Church’s history of racial discrimination against Spanish-speaking immigrants made any Catholic organization unsuitable for the job. Once immigration officials started rejecting the applications prepared by Catholic Charities, however, MALDEF found common cause with the Catholic agency. Together, MALDEF and Catholic Charities represented a group of previously undocumented immigrants whose applications for amnesty the Immigration and Naturalization Services had denied. Since immigration fell under the Department of Justice’s purview, MALDEF and Catholic Social Services (a group subcontracted by Catholic Charities) sued the Attorney General. Showing MALDEF’s willingness to partner up with the Catholic Church, an organization it clearly despised, is fundamental to the larger change over time story that my research reveals.

NCB: Have you worked on the problem of illegal immigration as a long-term phenomenon? What are the specificities of the immigration context of your period?

MJE: Yes. Much of my scholarship focuses on the problem of undocumented immigration in the 20th century. The early 1920s ushered in a new era of immigration restriction in the United States. These levels of restriction began to ease in the mid-1960s, when the Hart-Cellar Act repealed the old immigration quotas and lessened the restrictions on immigration from Asian countries. The 1965 law had unintended consequences, however. The new law created a privileged category of admittance for those applicants who already had relatives residing in the United States. For the first time in history, it also created immigration quotas for countries in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to 1965, only countries in the Eastern Hemisphere were subject to immigration quotas.

Three things happened as a consequence. First, the new immigration categories resulted in an increased number of immigrants from the global south. Second, the demand for entrance simply outpaced the bureaucratic apparatus of the US Immigration and Naturalization Services. Finally, the large backlogs collided with the newly created quotas to stimulate unauthorized crossings, increasing the number of undocumented immigrants to unprecedented levels. The situation reached a boiling point by the early 1980s, as hundreds of thousands of political refugees in Central and South America fled northward. This presentation picks up in the late 1970s and looks at some of the conditions that led reform activists to call for a new immigration law.

NCB: Is your project transnational or is your focus on the US?

 MJE: In some ways, it’s both. My project focuses primarily on what happens to immigrants once they enter the United States. With that said, the project also examines the causes of human movement to and within the United States, processes that extend far beyond US borders. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church plays a huge role in the story. It’s the oldest transnational institution still in existence today. My scholarship shows how the interactions between different national Catholic hierarchies played out in the United States, as well as how decisions in Rome shaped conditions on the ground.

NCB: What is the Immigration Reform and Control Act and what impact did it have?

MJE:  The Immigration Reform and Control Act was a comprehensive immigration reform law designed to legalize unauthorized immigrants while providing increased border security. The law came in response to an increase in unauthorized immigration caused in part by the 1965 immigration law. Congressional immigration subcommittees met beginning in the early 1980s to create a law that would provide a path to documented residency for undocumented workers without penalty. This provision quickly became known as the amnesty program. At the time Immigration and Naturalization Services estimated that approximately 4 million of more than 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States would apply for amnesty. Congress relied heavily on the report of the Commission on Immigration Reform, a bipartisan commission chaired by Father Theodore Hesburgh (President of Notre Dame University). The law also became notorious for its provisions allowing for increased border security. Other important components of the law included employer sanctions for knowingly recruiting or hiring undocumented immigrants; a requirement for employers to verify an employee’s immigration status; and amnesty for certain classes of agricultural employees. The so-called paperwork clause failed to deliver the protection for domestic workers that lawmakers had promised. The law had other significant shortcomings as well. For example, it offered no plan for those undocumented immigrants who failed to qualify for amnesty. The immigration backlogs that had been problematic under the 1965 law continued to increase, which overtime resulted in new waves of unauthorized immigrants.

NCB: What sources do you use?  

JME: Many of my sources come from the records of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference. However, I also used a variety of sources including published and unpublished reports and correspondence from governmental agencies, organizational records, oral history interviews, presidential and congressional correspondence, immigration records, newspapers, photographs, court transcripts, and case notes from the Supreme Court. I’ve spent more than three years traveling across the country conducting research, speaking with scholars, and gathering data.

NCB:  Would you say that your research on the contemporary period brings you into closer touch with the fields of anthropology and sociology in terms of your methodology and analysis?

MJE: As an interpretive discipline, history looks at change over time. My larger project examines how the evolution of church-state politics played out in the arenas of social welfare and immigration policy over the course of the twentieth century. I’m definitely influenced by sociological methods – I work closely with two historical sociologists! – but my work is deeply historical in nature.

NCB: You affirm that the actions of these groups and their recognition demonstrate that the Catholic agencies became an integral part of the state. Do you think that the place they took or were given indicates a real gain of power by these organizations or does it have more to do with governmental divestment or disinterest in the immigration question?

MJE: That is such a great question! I think the recognition of these groups testifies to a decline of the welfare state and a growth in the secular power of religious groups. Since the 1940s, the US federal government has farmed out welfare services to Catholic organizations. A 2015 Washington Post article written by Kelly Riddell, for instance, estimates that since 2012, Catholic organizations have received over $1.6 billion in federal contracts for welfare services. I’d argue that it’s not so much a disinterest on the part of the state, but rather a result of strategic alignment. The US Catholic Church’s institutional bureaucracy is second in size only to the federal government. Catholic priests and social workers have long been involved in the fields of immigration and social welfare. Since the early 1920s, the US bishops’ conference has maintained national offices administering a variety of social welfare and immigration services. Most of these offices have been designed to easily map onto their federal counterpart. When the US federal government created the Office for Economic Opportunity (an office designed to oversee anti-poverty initiatives) in the 1960s, the US Bishops’ Conference created a Taskforce on Urban and Rural Poverty that worked with local communities to secure federal funding for Catholic-sponsored community action programs. The same sorts of initiatives have been taken in the field of immigration. Directors of these Catholic agencies have served as presidential and congressional advisors, overseen federal anti-discrimination initiatives, and successfully funneled billions of dollars into Catholic-led immigration and anti-poverty efforts.