By Katherine Marshall
FAITH IN ACTION
The irony is familiar but still troubling: America, a nation proudly built by and for immigrants, today has a badly broken immigration system. But the debate about how to fix it has been fractious and unproductive. We seem to be stalled. At Georgetown’s Berkley Center, a group of scholars and activists last week explored how religious leaders and communities see the issue and what they are doing about it.
It was a generally upbeat afternoon. Heartening data from surveys suggest that most people, deep down, are ready for immigration reform. There’s a mobilization for action despite the sad defeat of the DREAM Act in December. And religious communities across the country are engaged in the day-to-day work of helping new arrivals find their way and integrate into American society.
The surveys, especially one by the Public Religion Research Institute, paint a picture of a reasonable American people who want to live their religious values in the way they approach immigration reform. Large majorities in all faith traditions acknowledge that the system badly needs fixing. They agree that core values should be a guide to reform: the Golden Rule (“providing immigrants the same opportunity that I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”) and valuing the dignity of each person. More significant, the survey put to respondents a comprehensive package that has long been advocated for immigration reform: that illegal immigrants be required to register with the government, work, pay taxes, and learn English before they can apply for citizenship; 86 percent of those polled supported it, six in ten “strongly.”
The view gets more cloudy when politics comes into the picture. By double-digit margins, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to rate cultural-religious values as important for immigration reform. It was heartening to hear Richard Land, proud conservative with the Southern Baptist Convention, issue a strong call for statesmen to do what needs to be done and what is right and just. He said that despite expectations that his conservative constituency would boo him when he called for reform, instead he received a standing ovation.
There are positive stories to tell about what religious leaders and communities are doing where it matters at a human level, in communities. Raleigh Bailey presented an inspiring narrative of North Carolina. Religious communities of many kinds, working individually and together, with the government and independently, have reached out and helped to build a genuine ethos of welcome and thus success in integration. In one school district there are now 150 first languages spoken by the students, a remarkable transformation in a state that had little diversity beyond white and black. It’s a rich new resource.
Women play the critical roles in making this welcome happen. There was little disagreement on that point: women are the ones who usually address the practical dimensions of bringing people from different communities together, breaking down barriers, finding common ground and solving the inevitable day-to-day problems. Elzbieta Gozdziak, Georgetown professor and Polish immigrant, delivered a humorous description of an immigrant’s lot, dealing with both the material (food) and the transcendent (“two things I will never be able to do in English even after 30 years: pray, because of course the Virgin Mary does not understand English, and read poetry”). An immigrant woman in Utah described the pain she felt living in a community that believed she could never be welcomed in Heaven, yet found a way to be part of the community. Elzbieta stressed the critical importance of religion and religious communities right in an immigrant’s early days. After some time the splendid American market, with its wide array of choices, opens different vistas.
Solutions seem to call for a combination of head and heart. Susan Martin, who heads Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, noted that when asked what proportion of American’s population is made up of immigrants the response in one survey was 39 percent. The reality is 13 percent. Public education can help blunt the fears that underlie much rage and reaction that blocks immigration reform.
And so can the appeal to conscience, to the good angels of the American people. “Welcoming the stranger” is a teaching that many faith traditions, and especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam hold in common: for example, the Old Testament (Hebrews 13.2) admonishes us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The calls of the pulpit can help in bridging the divides and moving to action.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
By Katherine Marshall |
February 28, 2011; 12:39 AM ET
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