"This is not solely about what happens to immigrants," said Ruben Garcia, founder and director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. "My concern is that all the focus is going to be on immigrants, and I think we have got to give considerable amounts of attention about what this does to us."
Garcia, whose organization has served since 1978 as a home for newly- arrived illegal immigrants and a refuge for those seeking political asylum, addressed the theme "Border Realities: a Conversation on Immigration" March 2 at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City, hosted by Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM).
"We are at a point where someone wants to define us and our history and we need to take the responsibility that comes with that and decide if this is how we are going to be defined," he said.
Garcia spoke of a "growing anti-immigration sentiment [that has been] spreading across the US for the past 15 years."
"It's been picking up speed culminating, with the House of Representatives on December 16, 2005, with the Sensenbrenner Bill which passed through the House pretty quickly with very little discussion or debate," said Garcia. "This bill has been getting a lot of attention, at least in El Paso, because it authorizes and provides funding for the building of a wall 700 miles long along the 2000 mile border between the United States and Mexico."
Congress is presently preparing to consider a number of bills on changing the immigration system, proposed by Republican lawmakers. In particular, H.R. 437—the "Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act," sponsored by James Sensenbrenner (R- WI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee – makes numerous changes to US immigration law that are focused primarily on enforcement, giving little attention to the labor and humanitarian issues impacting the US immigration system (http://www.visalaw.com/05dec2/3dec205.html)
Garcia noted that HR 4437 proposes "criminalizing all undocumented people and raises the way that we define being in the country as an undocumented."
"We are facing now, in this country, a legislative battle over how we are going to respond to immigrants and migrants," said Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM.) "The Episcopal Church and faith communities around the country have been very outspoken about wanting immigration reform that recognizes the need which people to the south, because of grinding poverty, have to take advantage of economic opportunities in this country and to be treated humanely and fairly. At the same time we are dealing with other voices that are becoming increasingly more restrictive in their attitudes towards the stranger."
The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, meeting March 6-9 in Philadelphia, declared "strong opposition" to any legislation that would make it unlawful for faith-based organizations to relieve "the suffering of undocumented immigrants in response to the Gospel mandate to serve the least among us and our Baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons." The council previously passed a resolution during their June 2005 meeting in Louisville, Kentucky
that supported legislation which would permit workers to enter the US legally to respond to labor force needs; ensure that close family members be allowed to enter or be reunited with those entering the US legally to accept employment; permit undocumented migrants residing in the US to pursue legal residence and eventual citizenship if they are employed; and ensure that migrants working legally be granted the rights and benefits accorded US workers, including the right to
change employment if necessary.
The Episcopal Church was also one of 135 signatories from a broad spectrum of religious groups urging Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation which reflected their June 2005 resolution (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/emm)
"The resolution basically sets forth the principles that we and other faith communities have said would be important in terms of any kind of legislation that comes out of Congress," said Parkins. "This is the year in which there will probably be immigration reform legislation and we sincerely hope that it honors the wellbeing of immigrants and migrants and doesn't just focus on enforcement, making the wall, detention and deportation—the key and exclusive features of the bill. In fact,
these measures won't help and have little ability to address the real weaknesses of our current system."
He said what is needed is a "comprehensive immigration bill which acknowledges the need for workers. If you bring workers in legally they can live more openly and be protected from exploitation. Uniting them early with their immediate family members also enhances stability for them and the communities in which they live."
The bill most reflective of this need, Parkins said, is the "Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act," a bill developed by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, which aims to balance border security concerns with a recognition of labor force needs.
"The McCain-Kennedy bill embodies most of the principles that we as a church have embraced," said Parkins. "Now whether it survives the Congressional debate remains to be seen, but our advocacy will be focused on a bill that parallels McCain-Kennedy, because these prospective workers are not people who wish us any harm. In fact, if anything, they want to become productive members of the communities in which they are being hosted."
Throughout his discussion, Garcia humanized the plight of the immigrant by sharing their stories. He spoke of Carmen, who works six days a week in a maquila (factory assembly line work) in 12 hour shifts only to earn $25 per week, and of Juan, who found refuge at Annunciation House in hope of eventually heading to San Francisco to stay with an uncle, but was shot and killed by border patrol police when they surrounded him while taking out the trash and caused him to
run away in fear of being returned to his country.
"We as a country are at a point where we've never been before," Garcia said. "Even with the Chinese Exclusion Act (http://sun.menloschool.org/~mbrody/ushistory/angel/exclusion_act/) which basically kicked out all Chinese people, there wasn't an aspect that if you help them, we will criminalize you. It leaves me feeling unable to comprehend that the churches have not been outraged to the point where they begin to encourage their congregations to consider civil disobedience in the form of hospitality."
He said one of the challenges that "we face as people of faith" is the ability to "talk with each other."
"I think that is the challenge before churches to evolve a language that will allow us to speak with each other and especially with people in our congregations to understand what is involved with this issue," said Garcia.
Parkins commented that Annunciation House is "one of the most significant ministries along the border dealing with migrants, women, children and with any number of groups that are affected by poverty and by repressive immigration practices and laws.”
"I think the ministry of hospitality that Annunciation House represents is indicative of what we should be as a nation and we're deeply concerned as to what we are becoming as a nation when we fail to honor our tradition of hospitality," he said.
"I think as I reflect on the migrants that have passed through our house, and I try to understand what kind of hospitality that they are asking for, it is a hospitality that first tells the truth," said Garcia.
What is needed
"I propose to you that congregations or church bodies conscientiously say ‘I will declare my church and my faith community a place of hospitality so that I provide a very basic response to the undocumented in our midst and at the same time, by doing that, I consciously oppose legislation that challenges this hospitality,’" commented Garcia.
He asked that calls, emails and letters go out immediately "to your senator urging them to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill and promote the McCain-Kennedy bill."
"We need just, fair immigration policies and practices so that people who have a need to be here, and who are eager and willing to make contributions to communities around the country, have an opportunity to do that," said Parkins. "This is the year in which there will probably be immigration reform legislation. We sincerely hope that it honors the wellbeing of immigrants and migrants and doesn't just focus on enforcement that puts people in detention facilities, and deports them. This won't work and we can do and must do better as a nation than that."