“The future of immigration reform legislation rests with faith communities.”
–Cardinal Mahony, the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles
Cardinal Mahony spoke this week on a panel at the Center for American Progress on Faith Communities and Immigration Reform. The report released with the event quotes Kevin Applebee, director of Migration and Refugee Policy at the U.S. Coalition of Catholic Bishops. “Immigration has to become ‘churchy,” Or, some might say, biblical. Congressman Clyburn of South Carolina, who spoke alongside the Cardinal, quoted the Book of James. “Look out for the widows and orphans in your midst.”
Surprisingly, that seems to be happening. All over the place. In fact, there’s a map of where all this faith activism on immigration is taking place. In North Carolina, for example, a Thursday night Town Hall meeting was held where people told stories of their experiences as immigrants and helped people see them as the face of the neighbor. The event was held in a church. Why in a church? “What better place given the nature of the problem?” said one participant.
Sam Fulwood, a journalist and CAP Senior Fellow, spent months speaking to faith group after faith group who have just starting caring for immigrants because no one else is doing it. His writing is a collection of stories about what these groups, whether Protestant or Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim, are just doing. They are not coordinated or part of one network. They are people who have just become fed up and have reached out to undocumented immigrants because of their faith commitments to caring for the neighbor.
The reason faith communities all across the nation have begun to engage in grassroots activism is because they are outraged by the treatment of their neighbors and friends. Media and politicians have played the fear card for so long now that the national conversation is deeply corrupted and distracted. Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., puts it bluntly, “I tell our people to turn off the radio.” There is a rise in hate crimes against immigrants according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Some times it is the harsh, criminalizing approach to the problem of illegal immigration that has catalyzed the faith response. The “wakeup call” came for many in the faith community with the House passage in of the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) of 2005. This bill, authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R. Wisc.) would have criminalized undocumented immigrants, and those who help them. Some in the religious community feared this meant even criminalizing pastoral care. The bill never became law.
Cardinal Mahony has commented H.R. 4437. “That bill was a God-send. It made it so absurd that it created a tremendous outpouring of recognition. This is a ridiculous piece of legislation that energized the immigrant and pro-immigrant communities. It was a defining moment.” That bill was, in fact, one of the matches that lit the fire of religious communities in their person-to-person, child-of-God to child-of-God alternative responses.
Gridlock in Washington has just pushed immigration issues back into the states. As Rabbi Moline has observed, “Criminalizing immigration reform is a cruel and unusual way to deal with the undocumented. It doesn’t solve anything and it breaks the budgets of communities that try it.”
So what are the solutions? We have to stop giving mixed signals. Our borders have two different and contradictory signs up: “Help Wanted” and “No Trespassing.” There is no regulated way to deal with need for workers. It’s a broken system and we need a comprehensive approach.
What happens if nothing happens? Suppose we just push it down the road? As the economy picks up, the demand for labor will be great. Cardinal Mahony observes that if you “Kick the can down the road too many times, the can becomes dented and it won’t go very far the next time you kick it.”
Faith communities are stepping up and confronting the fear-mongering. And they’re not preaching to the choir.