Faith communities across the country have been banding together to give an important voice for immigration reform, countering extremism, forcing a conversation about morals and American values, and in some instances intervening on the part of their congregation members.
Last week, faith leaders launched the “Shine the Light for Immigration Reform” campaign, a week-long series of Interfaith Days of Action urging Congress to reunite families and welcome the stranger. The days of action, which began on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, will culminate tomorrow, December 18th, the eve of International Migrants Day, with a vigil at a church near the White House where diverse faith leaders will deliver prayer flags and signed postcards from the various vigils and posadas held over the week to send a powerful message to Congress that comprehensive immigration reform must be delivered early in 2010.
Rev. Michael Ellick, Associate Minister of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, a participating congregation, articulated the timeliness of this call to action; echoing Rep. Gutierrez’s recent words before Congress:
“This is the greatest crisis of our time. To delay or deny immigration reform not only turns our backs on the great legacy of our society of immigrants – which by the way was forged and populated by the greatest migration of people in the history of the world, it’s to turn our back on 5.5 million children who are our own.”
Other churches, like the century-old Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey has been engaged in activism for several years. After the 2006 raids, when armed federal immigration agents rounded up 35 Indonesian men with expired visas and outstanding deportation orders, their wives and children, as well as others in hiding, began pleading to sleep at the church, and Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale couldn’t ignore the issue.
While attempting to intervene and understand the complex terrain of immigration law and detention on behalf of the Indonesian Christians who shared his sanctuary, Kaper-Dale discovered that many of them had initially arrived on tourist visas in the 1990s, but had over-stayed their visas, because they faced violence and discrimination in their home country. After 9/11 when the government required “special registration,” NSEERS (termination recently requested in a December 7th letter to DHS and DOS), of men ages 16 to 65 who entered the country on temporary visas from a list of primarily Muslim countries, including Indonesia, most of these Indonesians complied, on the advice of their pastors, hoping that honesty would open a pathway to citizenship. Instead, their appeals for asylum were denied, and those who registered became targets during immigration crackdowns.
However, under an unusual agreement eventually negotiated between Kaper-Dale and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Newark, four Indonesians have been recently released from detention, and 41 others, living as fugitives from deportation, have turned themselves in under the protection of the church. And rather than jailed, they have been released under supervision, and are eligible for work permits while their lawyers figure out how their cases might be reopened.
Though agency officials claim this type of arrangement is determined on a case-by-case basis, advocates hope it signals a broader use of humanitarian relief as Congress begins to tackle immigration reform in the new year. But skeptics recognize that this “church run-alternative to detention” is both an inconsistent exception and a temporary band-aid within a flawed immigration system that demands an overhaul.
Therefore, until the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 CIR ASAP” which Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced on December 15th, and other proposals, based on the same principles, including one from Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who heads the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who heads the House of Immigration Subcommittee, which are expected to be put on the table in early 2010, are transformed into actual legislation, millions of immigrants, like Patricia, a mother fighting a deportation order, will live in limbo with the fear of separation, only temporarily mitigated by the passionate efforts of pastors, like Rev. Kaper-Dale, and a committed volunteer base. As Patricia simply asserts through a translator:
“Before our neighbors took us in for sanctuary, we lived in fear and insecurity…As a family, we want to call for comprehensive immigration reform that can help us to have a better life, so we can live with dignity and honor in this country, as children of God.”
So, if you’re in Washington tomorrow, shine some light for CIR ASAP, and URGE the remaining congressional members to get on board to fix this crisis.
Photo courtesy of Christian Religious Leadership Network