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Religious leaders advocate for immigration reform at Faith and Migration conference

[Episcopal News Service]  More than 150 religious leaders and representatives of a broad spectrum of faith traditions joined members of Congress July 12 to affirm their common commitment to comprehensive immigration reform during a conference and advocacy day entitled "Faith and Migration."

The Episcopal Church was among the religious bodies sponsoring the conference, with the Church's Office of Government Relations and Episcopal Migration Ministries directly involved in planning and organization.

The timing of the conference coincided with an escalating national debate on immigration legislation now before Congress, and was intended to counter the efforts of some members of the House of Representatives to promote an enforcement-only bill.  Hearings are being held in various parts of the country emphasizing border control and security as the exclusive premises upon which the US immigration system should be reformed.

The conference underscored the strong feelings of religious leaders that, in spite of their different belief systems, they share a common moral perspective that immigrants coming to the US need to be treated fairly and compassionately.

The role of religious groups as important players in the debate was highlighted by several of the dignitaries who addressed the group. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) noted that, from his angle, there had not been "a theological perspective brought into the debate." The Kansas senator invited the group into the "big, noisy debate about immigration law and policy." Senator John McCain (R-AZ), co-sponsor of S.2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (CIRA), admonished religious communities for not being more visible actors in the debate and said their active engagement could be crucial in keeping the momentum for a balanced piece of legislation. Another co-sponsor of CIRA, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), exhorted religious groups to challenge those who would make enforcement and punishment the sole focus of immigration legislation.

The conference included theological perspectives from Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Sister Anne Curtis, councilor for the Sisters of Mercy; Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Dana Wilbanks, professor emeritus of Christian ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado; and Bishop Allan Bjornberg of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

In his remarks, Land pointed out that Christians are "to act redemptively and to reach out to those who are hurting, whether they are legal or not." Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, called attention to the impact of Cardinal Roger Mahony's statement instructing priests to break the law if the House bill criminalizing those who offered aid to illegal immigrants was enacted. Describing the Catholic leader's words as making "shock waves," Wallis warned legislators that "when you attack immigrants you attack us in the religious community."

Gutow invoked the plight of biblical Jews, which he said is "not much different from the poor, undocumented immigrant in our country today" and obliges modern Jews to identify with uprooted aliens seeking safety and protection.  Another Congressional guest, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA), cited his own experience as the son of a Jewish father who came from eastern Poland in the 1920s, commenting that "it's hard for me to turn my back on this" as a result.

Immigrants present at the conference related their personal experiences to the debate. Marie Gonzalez, 20, from Costa Rica, was given a deferral from deportation to remain in the US to continue her education while she witnessed the deportation of her parents, who had been US residents for 15 years. Marie described the ordeal of her family as a "horrible nightmare" and appealed to the audience "to do something for our students, who have only known the United States as our home and love this country and want a chance to give back. We are the future."

The afternoon was devoted to visiting legislators and staff. Some participants were able to meet with the House Majority and Minority Leadership, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Democratic Policy Committee.  Several of the Episcopal Church delegation met with the staff of Senator McCain, an Episcopalian, to express appreciation for his leadership on the immigration reform issue and to pledge ongoing support to immigration reform efforts.

An updated interfaith statement on comprehensive immigration reform was issued, bearing the signatures of 250 denominational and religious spokespersons, including the Episcopal Church.  The statement called for regularization of status for those in the US without status if they met certain criteria; significant reductions in waiting periods for reunification with close family members; creation of legal avenues for workers and their families to enter the country to work while having their rights as workers fully protected; and effective border protection policies consistent with humanitarian values.

These are consistent with principles adopted in a resolution of the Episcopal Church's 75th General Convention.  Episcopal participants at the conference received copies of the resolution, along with a statement from the Presiding Bishop endorsing comprehensive immigration reform, to use on their Congressional visits.

"There is no denying the challenge presented by the persistent negative messaging of those who oppose a comprehensive approach to immigration reform," said Molly Keane, legislative analyst in the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations. "But religious leaders and laity should continue to aggressively advocate for comprehensive immigration reform."

Attending the conference on behalf of the Episcopal Church were Canon Lydia Lopez and Maria (Magui) Lopez of the Diocese of Los Angeles; the Reverend Sara Beth Goodwin, Diocese of Washington; the Reverend Anna Lange-Soto, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Redwood City, CA (Diocese of California); and the Reverend Samuel Reddimalla, Diocese of New York.

EMM director Richard Parkins referred to the conference as "one of the most successful advocacy events in which we have been involved on the comprehensive immigration reform issue.

"The compelling statements of representatives of various religions, combined with the moving and really informative presentations by notable members of Congress, equipped the participants to step up their advocacy on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform with the hope that their involvement could make a difference."