To a room full of immigration rights supporters, the Center for American Progress unveiled its new report by CAP Senior Fellow Sam Fullwood III on Loving Thy Neighbor: Immigration Reform and Communities of Faith. The report looks at a number of case studies where religious communities have come together in support of immigrants from the aid given to families of the victims of the huge raid at Agriprocessors, Inc. in Postville, Iowa, to the Welcoming Immigrants Network in Texas, to a pilgrimage to an immigrant detention center in Bellingham, Washington (see photo).
The topic was introduced by Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC), the son of a pastor who told us about his work with migrant farm laborers in his state before he went into public office. Clyburn stressed that the history of migrant labor is important, that there were no stringent immigration laws at that time, and he said that "we must pass an immigration bill that focuses on how we got to where we are today." He quoted from James and Micah and concluded that we need to "get off our high horse" and go where the need is. "Our neighbor is not defined by church membership. Our neighbor is not defined by ethnicity," said the congressman.
Angela Kelley, CAP's Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy, then moderated a panel discussion that included Mr. Fullwood, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, VA, and Rev. Dean Reed, Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stephensville, Texas and one of the founders of the Welcoming Immigrants Network. The speakers talked about their work on immigration issues and concurred that it is important to a) put a human face on immigration by talking about the plights of people who are known to a congregation and b) recognize that America was built by immigrants.
At Kelley's invitation, members of the panel told stories of personal experiences with immigration that shaped their decisions to become activists. Rev. Reed spoke of wanting to hire a Bulgarian man who would have been a perfect fit for his church as music director only to be forced to shelve the idea because of the inability to cut through all the immigration red tape. Cardinal Mahony spoke of being present as a young child when the INS raided his father's poultry plant looking for (non-existent) undocumented workers. He said that the terror of the experience stayed with him and moves him to continue to fight for the rights of immigrants.
In his prepared statement, which the Cardinal did not get to read because of the format of the event but which was distributed afterwards, he addressed the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has emerged in connection with the health care reform debate. "Let us pray today that our public officials are able to move beyond this negative political atmosphere and work together to eliminate persistent injustices in our nation's laws....it is my belief that the faith community, working with others, holds the key to eventual victory on the issue of immigration."
Or, in Mr. Fullwood's delightful way of expressing it, "Immigration has to become churchy."