If the presidential election was a tutorial in American politics and the national and international policy challenges of the still-new millennium, it failed to provide instruction in one of the nation's most neuralgic problems: what to do about the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
Both President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain supported reform legislation that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a temporary guest worker program to admit future immigrants, and tougher border and workplace enforcement. Yet the issue was not discussed at any of the three presidential debates, and only rarely in other forums.
It is unclear where the issue will fall among the incoming administration's priorities. It should be near the top, if for no other reason than to provide some just resolution to a public debate that is dangerously corrosive and will only worsen with inaction.
Among my primary concerns as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Baltimore are the dignity of the human person and the welfare of families. These concerns are intimately connected with immigration - legal and otherwise - and so it necessarily demands my attention.
It's also an issue that has directly affected the people I am called to serve. Sadly, frustration over illegal immigration has turned heated, and even uncharitable, at some of our churches. Meanwhile, a number of the 45 illegal immigrants arrested in a June raid in Annapolis were members of our parishes.
These experiences are a microcosm of the national environment regarding illegal immigration and are clear and compelling evidence that comprehensive and just reform of our immigration system cannot be delayed.
Our national bishops' conference has endorsed the path-to-citizenship and border security route that was the hallmark of the 2006 legislation supported by President George W. Bush and approved by the U.S. Senate, but that ultimately died for want of House action.
This model received - and continues to garner - the bishops' endorsement because it secures in the area of immigration the basic framework from which all laws should operate: It serves the common good. Specifically, it promotes human dignity by offering to eligible illegal immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows and become full participants in society by gaining citizenship if they meet reasonable criteria.
It also protects immigrant families by allowing many, if not most, of them to remain together. The family is the primary unit of society and, as such, priority in immigration matters must be given to family unification.
Finally, the proposal promotes social well-being and development because it stabilizes the status of millions of illegal immigrants, thereby reducing exploitation, and protects national security by mandating tougher border and workplace enforcement.
A recent national poll conducted by Zogby found that 69 percent of Catholics support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who register with the government.
All of this means little, of course, unless our elected officials take it upon themselves to make just and comprehensive immigration reform a priority.
Some of our Maryland members of Congress appear timid in embracing such a proposal. In a candidate survey conducted this fall by the Maryland Catholic Conference, only two of the state's 16 major-party congressional candidates (and one of the eight eventual victors) indicated their support for a path-to-citizenship model.
Nevertheless, the time has come to tackle this issue. Obviously, the economy is dominating the headlines, and rightly so. But an estimated 11 million individuals - mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, people on whose work we rely - remain in a precarious situation, and our public discourse about them and their fate is too often poisonous.
Comprehensive and just immigration reform may not have been a feature on the campaign trail, but I pray it will be given full consideration by our president-elect and the next Congress.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien is leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.