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Faith leaders call for immigration reform

March 7, 2010

Faith column published March 6 on faith and immigration.

And the full text:

We, as a nation, are stressed. The economy has derailed lives and careers. We are torn over the health care debate. We are sending our young people off to war. We are worried about national security. And as we grapple with our own problems, we are still trying to do our part for disaster victims overseas.

As the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest, admitted in a column just after the Haiti earthquake, many of us are suffering from compassion fatigue.

But the interfaith chorus for immigration reform is gaining volume anyway. The voices are diverse: Catholics and mainline Protestants, evangelicals and emerging Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. And the message is clear: Congress must do something now. Families are being torn apart by deportations and detentions and an inadequate visa system.

Clergy members and lay people are holding local rallies — including one in Austin last month — and sending thousands of letters to Congressional leaders. On March 21, religious organizations say they expect tens of thousands to gather for an interfaith prayer service and march on the National Mall. The following day, people will meet with their representatives and urge them to enact reform that, among other objectives, provides a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants and addresses the visa backlog in an effort to reunite families.

Jen Smyers, who works on immigration policies for the ecumenical organization Church World Service, said various faith leaders and lay people draw on scriptural admonitions to welcome the stranger and love their neighbor. And of course the Bible contains many stories of migration and exile.

But, Smyers said, “the one (conviction) that stands out most is the importance of family unity. All our faith traditions honor the bond of family and its importance to society and to individual well being, and we have all seen families within our congregations torn apart by lengthy visa waiting periods, detention, raids and deportations.”

This effort struck a chord with me because, even though I am four generations removed from my forebears who fled famine and persecution in Ireland, I have always identified with immigrants. Growing up in Massachusetts, we, the descendants of Irish, Polish, French and Italian immigrants, celebrated their stories. To us, they embodied the American dream.

Sometimes we forgot that those immigrants were not exactly made to feel welcome. As viewed by the Anglo-American Protestants, they weredangerous and dirty. A drain on the system. They spoke the wrong language or practiced the wrong religion. They did not assimilate.

We hear the same concerns today. This country has always struggled with immigration.

And it would be difficult for those of us who see the struggles of immigrants here in Texas to romanticize their stories. For many, coming here is an act of desperation. A last-ditch effort to support a family even if it means going years without seeing spouses and children. Even if it means risking death to cross the border. Even if it means working on the kill floor of a meat packing plant or cramming into a tiny apartment with 10 other people. Or getting deported and starting all over again.

I have heard these stories from Mexican immigrants I know personally, and it’s hard for me — for most of us, probably — to imagine the circumstances that led them here. And I can see why people of faith would feel compelled to speak out for those people, to give them hope.

But as with any issue of this magnitude and controversy, it’s complicated. On the other side of the immigration debate also stand people of faith,people who draw from the same scriptures to make their argument. For these believers, the Bible clearly states the importance of following the law of the land and of the sovereignty of nations and does not endorse illegal immigration.

This latest push for reform overemphasizes certain scriptural passages and fails to put them in their context, argues James R. Edwards Jr., a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies. The Washington-based center promotes an immigration policy that “admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted.”

In a policy paper on the Bible and immigration (www.cis.org/ImmigrationBible), Edwards writes that pro-immigrant activists claim that scriptural passages call on society to welcome all foreigners, but he argues, “No such passages state or imply overlooking illegality committed on the part of the alien in his entry.”

Of the faith leaders promoting immigration reform, Edwards told me: “It’s too bad these people seem more concerned about winning the praise of men than with helping illegal aliens to get right with the law, which is much more demanding, more involved, less publicly prominent and requires administering tough love, which is true compassion in this instance.”

But what do you do if both arguments resonate with your spiritual worldview?

As a longtime pastor in Austin, Randy Philips has often wrestled with these questions. His church, PromiseLand West, has a diverse membership that includes immigrants.

“The church has an obligation to love and care for the poor and the stranger,” Philips told me. “But the state has an obligation to execute the law. As a pastor, my job is to be Christ to anyone and everyone in my community, regardless how they got there. As a tax-paying citizen, I am concerned about the burden on our schools, hospitals and housing.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rich permalink
    March 7, 2010 6:38 pm

    Those who want to help illegal immigrants should pay for it themselves, not through public funds or by rewarding law breakers.

  2. Syed permalink
    March 8, 2010 10:38 pm

    Hi Eileen,

    This is a very contentious topic indeed and I thank you for writing about your feelings and those of others in the religious community.

    I would like to shed some light on the dilemma of a sub-section of the immigrant population that seems to have been forgotten in the debate for immigration reform – just so you know, I am a part of this sub-section and the views that I am about to share are from first-hand experience.

    I can’t help but smile when I read comments from those who oppose immigration on the basis of legality, or lack thereof, I guess – that is, those who are here illegally since they broken immigration laws should not be allowed to stay, etc. Well, what about those immigrants who came over legally, pay their taxes regularly, filed their immigration papers as required by law, do not have a criminal record, but yet wait in line for years and in some cases more than a decade (yes a decade!!) to become permanent residents.

    Take my example; I came over on a student visa, graduated with flying colors and got a job legally. My employer filed my papers for permanent residence as required by law yet it’s going to be exactly three years this August since any forward movement has taken place on my application. Why, you ask? Well, the reason is that the number of green cards that the Government can issue in a year is not adequate to meet the demand of skilled people who wish to come over and add value to this land. To add insult to injury, over a number of years, the government agency that processes these applications couldn’t process all the paperwork that they had with them due to bureaucratic delays and as such green cards that should have been issued against one year’s quota were issued in subsequent years thus wasting available quotas. Now since the whole immigration reform has become bogged down in the Congress, this sub-group of legal immigrants who has played by the rules is being made to wait in a never ending bureaucratic queue with no end in sight since no one in Congress wants to pay attention to their plight.

    Readers of this blog who track immigration news may recall news articles that have been published in numerous national newspapers that have talked about how many people have just abandoned their green card applications and gone back home because they are simply frustrated with the agonizing wait. Some can’t bring over a spouse, or a child or some other dependent. Do this; for a minute try to imagine that you are a legal immigrant in the US, away from a loved one and do not know how long you will have to wait till that loved one can join you here? Scary isn’t it? It is a classic recipe to give any human being gray hair at a young age.

    I request you to use this forum to write about immigrants of this sub-group as well so that the general public may realize that this whole debate is not just about illegal immigrants. That there are people involved who have done everything by the book and yet they are made to wait for unknown periods of time.

    With thanks,

    Syed.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      March 8, 2010 10:44 pm

      Thank you, Syed, for sharing your insight and experience. It does sound incredibly frustrating, and I appreciate your drawing my attention to the problem.
      Best wishes,
      Eileen

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