Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister for Social Service and Director of Network Nuns, waves to supporters as she prepares to board the bus after an immigration reform rally held at St.John Neumann Parish in Scranton, Penn., on Wednesday. (Butch Comegys/AP/The Scranton Times-Tribune)

With the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, Nuns on the Bus this week kicked off a national tour for immigration reform aimed at giving a faith-based push to legislation that’s hanging in the balance in Congress.

“We have got to make this an urgent message of now,” Sister Simone Campbell, head of the social justice lobby Network, which organized the tour, told a rally Wednesday on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

“The next six to eight weeks is going to determine what we can accomplish,” Campbell said as she pointed to nearby Ellis Island, a gateway for generations of immigrants. “The time is now for immigration reform.”

Champions of a comprehensive overhaul say they have their best opportunity since 2007, when an effort backed by President George W. Bush was thwarted by members of his own party. After Republicans lost the Latino vote in last fall’s elections, party leaders said they would be open to an immigration bill that could help change that political dynamic.

A bill with bipartisan support continues to make its way through the Senate as backers look to win passage this summer before Congress shifts its focus to budget battles and then the 2014 election. But opponents are going all out to block the bill, and they say they have a good shot to prevail in the House, where conservative Republicans have more influence.

Sister Simone Campbell of the "Nuns on the Bus" social justice tour, gestures at the end of her address during the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., September 5, 2012. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)

With so much at stake and so little time, Campbell and Network revved up Nuns on the Bus, hoping to replicate the media coverage and public appeal of their first tour, last summer, when the sisters traveled 2,700 miles through nine states in a bus to protest Republican budget plans.

That trip made Nuns on the Bus a sensation. Campbell appeared on news shows and “The Colbert Report,” and she was a prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention.

This time the bus is scheduled to travel 6,500 miles over three weeks, stopping in 15 states. Most of those states – like Florida, Texas and California – have large Latino populations and are on the front line of the debate about creating a path to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants. The tour is set to conclude June 18 on Angel Island in San Francisco.

While the Catholic sisters are the face of the tour – seven are traveling on the first leg and total of two dozen will join in at various points – the immigration push is uniting religious groups across the political and denominational spectrum.

Many religious communities have long backed justice for immigrants as an example of the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger.”

“God is so happy when God’s children stand together for God and for good,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said at the Nuns on the Bus send-off. “That’s what we do here today.’

But this time around, many white evangelical leaders who are often allied with Republicans have been especially vocal in backing change, and they can point to polls that show majority support for their views among other believers.

Also notable is that the immigration issue could bring the Catholic sisters and the Catholic bishops together after Campbell’s group helped lead the charge for President Obama’s health-care reforms, which many bishops opposed.

Relations also have suffered because of the church’s crackdown last spring on a group that respresents most U.S. nuns, which the Vatican said was undermining Catholic doctrine and promoting “radical feminist themes.”

But some bishops appear ready to support this Nuns on the Bus tour. At a rally Wednesday, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, head of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York, gave a full-throated endorsement of the work of the U.S. sisters and said they have “widespread support” in their campaign for immigration reform.

“In this country, we are a church of immigrants,” Sullivan said in a brief interview before the rally. “To be perfectly honest, we have to stand in solidarity with immigrants.”

But Nuns on the Bus can still irk political conservatives in the Catholic Church.

As the tour left for stops Thursday in South Jersey and then Washington, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – which is supported by a number of prominent bishops – put out a statement blasting Network as “a Catholic dissident group” and dismissing Nuns on the Bus as never having more than seven sisters at a time on the coach.

— Religion News Service

David Gibson is a staf writer for Religion News Service.