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Welcoming Our Neighbors: The Path to Immigration Reform

General Assembly 2009 Event 2032

Immigration issues are looming large here in Salt Lake City this week. On July 1, a new state law takes effect that will require all state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws as well.

Several local police and sheriffs' departments around the country have already voluntarily adopted this policy via a 287G memo—an agreement signed by individual agencies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But in a matter of days, Utah will become the first state to adopt this policy statewide.

And Utah law enforcement is making a stand. The Salt Lake City chief of police has already said that his department will not comply with the new law. Other agencies are openly considering that option, too. It's not a surprising position when you consider how much money and manpower this extra enforcement burden costs local governments. Furthermore, law enforcement officers see first-hand every day the tragic effects of America's collapsing immigration system. From their own experience, they know that undocumented immigrants, as a population, are not their major source of crime.

Untarian Universalists (UUs) from Arizona have found themselves as key players in this looming drama—and that role loomed as the backdrop as UUs came together, as we do every year, to survey our role in helping the country resolve a massively unjust immigration situation. The panel's three speakers, moderated by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, FL, included:

  • the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran minister who is a veteran member of the New Sanctuary movement
  • the Rev. Canon Dr. Pablo Ramos, the Episcopal bishop of Utah, whose church runs a support center that offers medical, mental health, and social services to immigrant families in Salt Lake City
  • the Rev. Susan Fredrick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Phoenix, whose congregation received this year's UUA Social Justice Award during this session for their work in changing the terms of the immigration issue nationwide—including, quite possibly, in the coming conflict in Utah.

Janamanchi pointed out that America's struggle with immigration issues is ancient, difficult, and many-layered. At one end are the lofty sentiments expressed in Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus." At the other are the virulent anti-immigrant hatreds that often come to the fore whenever the economy heads south. Likewise, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been struggling with this issue—with varying degrees of success—since it passed the first resolution in support of immigrant workers and their families at the very first UUA General Assembly in 1961.

Many UU congregations are already deeply engaged with this issue. (A show of hands revealed that roughly a third of the audience, which numbered at least a couple hundred, were members of churches that do sanctuary work.) These congregations are stepping forward to end discrimination, exclusion, violence, and exploitation of immigrants in their communities. Janamanchi traced this commitment back to the radical hospitality that lies at the heart of the UU faith. We regard reaching out to strangers as a holy act— a serious spiritual practice that fosters our own spiritual growth, while at the same time standing as an example and witness against xenophobia around the world.

Telling the Immigrant Story

Salvatierra outlined a few things the sanctuary movement has learned about creating change. She emphasized especially how easy it is to get distracted by statistics and abstract policy debates. Rather than get wonky about it, she says, immigrant rights groups always do better when they ground these big-picture conversations in the daily reality faced by immigrant families caught up in a system that's profoundly broken. People have a hard time hearing fact-based arguments when they're feeling afraid or threatened. It's only once their empathy is engaged that the facts start to make sense.

As an example, Salvatierra talked about Liliana, a young woman whose parents emigrated from Mexico to Oxnard, CA, while she was still in high school. Liliana stayed behind with relatives so she could graduate before following her family north. When the time came, her parents petitioned U.S. Immigration to allow her to join them—only to be told that there would be a 10-year wait on the application.

Liliana, being 18, "did something foolish," Salvatierra said. She bought a fake birth certificate, and tried to cross the border with it. She was caught and sent back. So she went to Plan C, sneaking across the border to finally join her parents.

In the years that followed, Liliana married an American citizen, had two kids, held down a job, and paid taxes. While she was pregnant with her third child, her husband persuaded her to try to apply again for citizenship. (After all, her parents, husband, and kids were all already citizens.) The process went well—until the final meeting, when the immigration officer noticed her first attempt to enter the country. Misrepresenting herself as a U.S. citizen is a felony. And it disqualified her from applying for U.S. immigrant status—forever. Not only that: she would have to leave the country immediately.

Three months later, she was nursing her baby at 6 a.m. when ICE officers burst into the house and seized her in order to deport her. After some negotiation, she was given five days to say goodbye to her husband, children, and parents to go back to Mexico alone. Salvatierra noted that there are four million children in the US who have at least one undocumented parent—and that these young citizens live under the threat of being orphaned by ICE at a moment's notice. Current ICE law only allows the parent to stay if removing them would be a "cruel, unusual, or extreme hardship" for the child. Apparently, having your parents taken away forever at a moment's notice and being forced to grow up without them is not considered an "extreme hardship" by our government.

"We're not saying that what these immigrants did wasn't illegal," Salvatierra said. "We're saying that the response is excessive—it's cruel and unusual punishment."

Moral Leadership from Religious Leaders Matters

According to Salvatierra, the key to successful sanctuary movements is simply getting non-immigrants to care enough to take up their cause. President Obama is meeting today with Congressional leaders to discuss comprehensive immigration reform. Polls consistently find that 75% of Americans back this reform—but individual Congress members report that their phone calls and mail run anywhere from 10-1 to 25-1 against it. Until that ratio changes, they're not likely to run the risk. So the key to creating change is motivating people in our congregations and communities to act to change that ratio.

Salvatierra also said that religious leaders and congregations have been very powerful moral leaders in the past. Back in 2006, for example, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) proposed a bill that would have made it a felony to be undocumented in the U.S.—or to give any kind of aid or assistance to an undocumented person. It was a terrifying bill for everyone involved in the sanctuary and immigrants' rights movements—until Cardinal Roger Mahoney stood up on Ash Wednesday, and issued a call for Catholics across the country to engage in civil disobedience if the bill passed.

The bill cleared the House, and was on its way to the Senate, when Mahoney's bold stand changed the terms of the national conversation on immigration. They were no longer seen as a threat or an invasion, but as brothers and sisters, children of God, people who were worthy of sacrifice by non-immigrant Americans. The Senate dialogue shifted in a way that passing the bill was impossible.

A View from Utah

Ramos ratified this observation with his own experiences. The role of prophetic traditions, he said, is to question the status quo—though, as Jesus and Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., both demonstrate, it's also a good way to get yourself killed. Still, this is the work people of faith are called to do.

Ramos, a Mexican national who has been in the U.S. since 1998, said that government efforts to create effective solutions have largely been failures. He noted that Congress finds it easier to appropriate funds to build a border fence than it does to enforce the law against employers who exploit illegal labor, or reform the immigration process so that families aren't separated for decades by it. Forty-six states have passed over 150 state-level immigration laws, most of which are based on an incomplete or ideologically-driven understanding of the problem. Worst, he says: Americans are grossly misinformed about the immigration issue. We talk about it as an issue of economics or national security, without ever contemplating the dignity and everyday lives of the people caught up in this nightmare.

As people of faith, we need to move past this debate. "The legality of their entry is a government issue," he declared. "But the treatment they get once they're here is our issue." He invoked the passage from the Book of Numbers: "The alien who resides with you should live with you as a citizen among you, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."

Ramos' church is involved in running the Moab Valley Cultural Center, which provides health care, educational support, and counseling to low-income families—many of which are undocumented families. He recalled a recent incident in which a large white van with Department of Homeland Security markings was parked out front of the center, with a man inside watching the building. It stayed for a while, then left the lot. The center's administrators called DHS and ICE, trying to find out why the van was there. Due to security policies, nobody could tell them. But as word of the episode spread through the community, it chilled families' participation in the center's programs. All it took was a van in a parking lot to effectively cut them off from this important source of community support.

From Phoenix to the National Stage

Frederick-Gray ended the session by telling the remarkable story of her church's engagement and success with the immigration issue. In September 2002 (before Frederick-Gray herself arrived at the church), a young police officer who belonged to their church was shot and killed by an undocumented man in the line of duty. In the wake of this shooting, anti-immigrant groups in Arizona and elsewhere began using the event to stir up anti-immigrant hatred and fear—against the wishes of both his wife and his fellow officers, both of whom saw this as a prime reason to push for comprehensive immigration reform.

The cop's wife channeled her grief into this cause. She took to public speaking, eventually getting the mayor of Phoenix, the chief of the police department, and then-Governor Janet Napolitano to speak out publicly on the issue. She went to Washington, DC, to speak to a national convention of police chiefs, and gathered their support for the bill. Those chiefs, in turn, went back to their communities and became advocates for immigration reform, and have become more resolute in refusing to invest resources in enforcing immigration law.

Their efforts came to a head over the actions of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has garnered national attention for his brutal enforcement of immigration law. Arpaio has been known to detain immigrants in remote tent camps under life-threatening conditions, and sanction police beatings of immigrants. He's considered a hero to racist groups around the country, and hasn't shied away from their attention.
Arpaio operates under a 287G agreement from ICE that gives him power to enforce federal immigration law. Last February, Frederick-Gray's congregation took a leading role in a protest to protest that agreement. The church worked to publicize the event, boosting turnout and getting local media attention. The rally, which had only expected to draw 500 people, drew 5,000 instead. Janet Napolitano came. Lawsuits were filed. And the upshot is that all 287G agreements in the country (including the one about to go into effect statewide in Utah) may be terminated.

Getting Your Church Involved

Her church's engagement with this issue followed a three-pronged approach that Frederick-Gray recommends to other congregations.

The first prong is education, which she noted is the most overlooked and yet important aspect of this kind of action. The immigration issue is clouded with lots of misinformation and complexity, and you cannot get a congregation effectively organized and mobilized until they're very clear themselves what's happening, and why, and what's at stake.

To do this, the issue needs to become part of the life of the congregation. Focus on personal stories and testimonies to connect this issue to church members. Reflect on the social justice issues that are affecting your local community. Good education instills confidence that the church can indeed lead a change effort at the local level.

The second prong is partnership. We cannot do this work alone. The Phoenix church sought out alliances with the New Sanctuary movement and other Phoenix social justice groups—as well as national groups that worked with the UUA at the federal level—and thus leveraged their power tremendously.

The third prong is policy—the place where real long-term change happens. Frederick-Gray said that the ability to change what happens at all levels of government, from local to federal, follows very naturally after you have the first two pieces in place. If you're organized locally, you will be able to act effectively at a national level when opportunities arise.

She closed by recommending the workbook for congregations, "You Were Once A Stranger" (PDF, 112 pages).

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.