Melting pot at boiling point?
As immigration reform eludes Congress and as resentment, hate speech and anger about the issue build across the United States, leaders of the Episcopal Church are calling church members to stand with the suffering.
Undocumented immigrants, disparaged as “illegal aliens” by some who want them out of this country -- and out of its schools, hospitals and jobs -- present a moral dilemma for dioceses and ministries in every state. Raids at workplaces, and the arrests, detentions and deportations that follow, devastate families and divide communities.
Employers who need workers find themselves pitted against taxpayers who resent increasing costs of social services. This nation of immigrants, once proud to be a “melting pot,” now builds prisons and detention centers one after another to remove those it sees as a threat. “Hospitality is becoming an endangered trait at the official level,” laments Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. "We are developing a culture of fear and suspicion. It permeates the community...and we begin to close our doors.
“The official voice is ’Keep them out. They are a liability.’ I think the voice of the church has to be the counter voice.”
So does Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In September, after Congress failed again to pass an immigration reform bill, Jefferts Schori wrote to the church: “I call on all people of faith to vehemently insist that immigrants be protected from inhumane treatment.”
She criticized the raids making news across the country. “Families have been separated, with breadwinners being placed in detention or a parent deported; families have been suddenly ruptured.”
She deplored the “wrenching accounts” of such separations, the deportations, racial profiling and stepped-up enforcement measures along the country’s borders.
“I would urge our government, in the strongest terms, to cease these incursions into workplaces, homes and other venues where migrants gather until we have comprehensive immigration reform. This one-sided approach to addressing our immigration problems neglects the tenets of justice and compassion which define us as Christians and as a church which embraces the marginalized and the defenseless.”
Some churches already embrace those at risk in their communities. Some have joined the “New Sanctuary Movement” spreading across the country.
Patterned after the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches sheltered Central and South Americans fleeing death squads and oppressive political regimes, the “new” movement claims churches and organizational support in 50 cities so far.
In Long Beach, California, one of them, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, took in a mother and her 5-month-old son last spring. Liliana, 29, who does not reveal her last name, entered the country illegally nine years ago.
Her husband and their three young children are all U.S. citizens, yet last May, says Liliana, four armed officers came to arrest her. When they saw the children, they gave her a few extra days.
Fearing she might not see her children again, Liliana turned to a local sanctuary group. She asked for shelter and was directed to St. Luke’s. She stayed for months with the parish’s help.
In Auburn, Washington, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church supports a couple living in legal limbo. “Three of our parishioners have been detained in raids, two are out on bond, and one has been deported,” says Diane Aid, coordinator of the parish’s Jubilee Center, a program of the church’s Spanish-speaking congregation, San Mateo.
The congregation is providing legal, financial and spiritual support to a couple awaiting the husband’s deportation hearing. The parish commits itself to taking in any children left unattended if parents are picked up in a raid. Several have occurred in the region.
“We will be their temporary child care until we can find some relatives who can take care of them,” says Aid.
In Cave Creek, Arizona, Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church drew fire last summer because of its day labor center. The church had registered nearly 120 immigrant laborers and helped them to find prospective employers. Church members started the service as an aid to both the workers and the town which had workers gathering in numerous places every day. The central location was provided to offer structure.
In Cincinnati, the Church of Our Saviour voted one year ago to identify itself as a “sanctuary church.” The vestry committed to “resist any effort to criminalize persons who come to this country seeking work and income to support their families” and “to support and sustain immigrants who seek to lead peaceful and productive lives in our communities.”
In Maine, the diocese’s new missioner to Hispanics, the Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, can barely keep up with requests for help from frightened Latino families who have had loved ones detained or deported. The rapid growth of the Latino population in Maine has brought harsh reprisals, she says. Rincon’s outreach ministry, Tengo Voz, draws in white congregations that want to help.
In San Diego, the Rev. Canon Mary Moreno-Richardson, coordinator for Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of San Diego, focuses much of her time on undocumented immigrant children and teens who end up in the detention centers. Some are placed in foster homes. Many of them, she says, are abused, depressed and suicide risks.
“The Border Patrol is setting up checkpoints in immigrant neighborhoods,” says Moreno-Richardson. “The [undocumented] children picked up are from all over the world. Some told me they’d come over from Asia on freight boats all alone.”
More than 200,000 detained
Undocumented immigrants constitute the fastest growing incarcerated population in the nation. More than 200,000 are detained over the course of a year, according to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). Almost all are deported. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency reports that it “removed 185,431 illegal aliens from the country [in fiscal year 2006], a 10 percent increase” over 2005.
At any one time, more than 27,000 are being held in hundreds of detention facilities -- state and county jails, “Service Processing Centers” owned and operated directly by ICE and “Contract Detention Facilities” operated by private companies for the Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Prisons facilities. Congress recently voted to increase the bed space for detained immigrants to more than 62,000 by the year 2010.
Some of these detention centers provide cramped, rat-infested spaces; serve noxious food; and deny basic hygiene, according to a study by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Released in August 2007, the report documented chronic problems with phone service, a vital link for people who do not have the same constitutional right to free, government-appointed lawyers that American citizens have.
In July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its own critical report about conditions in the detention centers. “At each of the 23 facilities it visited, the GAO encountered problems with the phone system,” according to the NILC. The GAO report followed a New York Times exposé of longstanding problems with medical care at the detention centers, including 62 deaths since 2004.
“Many of these deaths could have been prevented had ICE Immigration and Customs Enforcement adhered to its own detention standards regarding medical care and diagnosed and treated basic medical problems,” wrote Karen Tumlin, a NILC fellow.
In many locations, Hispanics seem to be the focus of the raids and police stops that result in detention, according to church advocates.
“Our biggest work now is with a small community where police are inappropriately stopping Latinos and asking for immigration documents,” says Aid. “This is becoming a rather large case. The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] is lending a hand.”
So far, she says, “there have been 15 stops that we know of” in the town of Pacifica, Washington. “Police have been pulling over Latinos...they have not been read their Miranda rights, and the police themselves are transporting them to the detention center.”
In Maine, social-service agencies are quietly telling Latinos that they would be substantially safer elsewhere.
“Their chances of getting picked up in Maine are greater probably than in many other states,” says Beth Stickney, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. “That’s just a reality.”
The issue is racial profiling. “That’s the biggest problem we have in the state right now,” says Stickney. State and local police are stopping motorists who do not look like the 98 percent white population, she says. “And if they stop someone for a traffic violation, there is nothing in the law that prohibits them from asking additional information about where they are from.”
Rincon says this happens all the time. “If there is a vehicle that has an expired inspection sticker, or the light’s out, then they will pull them over, and the next thing you know they are taking them in to detain them and bring in Immigration.” Rincon calls the offense “driving while brown.”
“There is an enormous amount of racism here,” she says. “I face it all the time. There is a lot of need for education and looking at the seriousness of this, especially since 9/11.”
Stickney agrees. “We never saw this happening until September 11. I think their [the police] motivation is they are afraid of anybody who looks different. They feel they are being patriotic and that this is good law enforcement.”
“Probably 50 percent of the folks who are in detention are in detention because they’ve been stopped by local police on a traffic violation that we would regard as pretextual,” says Stickney.
Once detained, immigrants are at risk. “The situation is getting worse and worse,” says Rincon. “I have between two and three missing during a week.”
Families call her to say someone is “missing,” and she calls the detention facilities and the county jails and eventually finds them.
“I deal with this stuff on a daily basis,” she says. “It’s a way of life. People are afraid.”
In August, USA Today reported that “41 states have enacted 171 laws aimed at illegal immigrants. About 100 communities have proposed similar ordinances.”
Tensions mount as immigrant populations increase. “The frictions will be most palpable at the local level,” demographer Peter Morrison of the Rand Corp., a think tank, told the newspaper. “It’s affecting school budgets and creating new needs that impinge directly on local taxpayers.”
The rapid changes taking place in communities where these immigrants settle is what causes the friction, according to Jeffrey Passel, demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, also quoted in the USA Today report.
Parkins, the Episcopal Church’s advocate for immigrants, says, “People are focusing on building the wall, adding to the border-enforcement capacity, punishing people who are picked up, increasing the number of beds for detainees. That’s where the energy is. A lot of the advocacy work now has to be damage control.”
Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington, D.C., deplores current efforts to make offering help and support to undocumented immigrants illegal. States are passing laws criminalizing such aid and ministry. It is already a federal felony if someone “assists an alien s/he should reasonably know is illegally in the U.S. or who lacks employment authorization, by transporting, sheltering or assisting him or her to obtain employment,” according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit organization.
“I think you’re going to hear from people in churches across the political spectrum that, ’If you tell us Christian ministry is illegal, we will go ahead and do Christian ministry, whether it’s legal or not,’” says Wallis.
Wallis is one of the founders of a new coalition group known as Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. CCIR has documented what it calls “the increasing prevalence of un-Christian treatment of immigrants.”
In a report issued in mid-November, “A House Divided: Why Americans of Faith Are Concerned about Undocumented Immigrants,” the group calls attention to increases in hate speech and hate groups linked to the anti-immigrant movement, the rapid increase in harsh anti-immigrant ordinances at local and state levels and the impact of raids on immigrant families.
Bridge to reconciliation
“The religious community is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge across our differences on immigration and a source of healing and reconciliation,” according to the group. The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council echoes that view.
“The Episcopal Church deplores raids carried out by the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency at worksites, community gatherings and residences seeking undocumented workers, which result in separating families and leaving children parentless,” said the council in its resolution passed in June. The council called on Episcopalians, “after careful consideration and consultation...to assist those seeking protection from deportation and detention by the provision of sanctuary, which can include material, legal and pastoral support.”
“The people who are pushing back are the people of faith,” says Parkins. “The church groups and the human rights activists like Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International. But certainly the churches have been a very strong and significant voice for a doctrine of generosity, compassion and welcome.”
Yet Parkins is worried. “I feel no sense of urgency in the church around these issues. It is for the church to recognize that this is a serious social-justice issue that needs to be confronted by the gospel imperative to welcome the stranger.”
“You can walk into many, many parishes across this country and find there is indifference and maybe a lack of understanding of what is happening out there,” he says. “I hope that is changing as there is more publicity...but even in churches that would contend that they have a social-justice orientation, it hasn’t really seized them as a critical justice issue.”
A clear exception is the advocacy work of the Episcopal Church’s “border bishops and dioceses.”
In 2006, Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith led the House of Bishops to adopt a resolution affirming comprehensive immigration reform and humane care for the undocumented. When the House of Bishops met again last March, Smith and a panel of “border bishops” including San Diego’s James Mathes and bishops of the Anglican Church of Mexico outlined concerns and ministry priorities.
The Diocese of Arizona also coordinates related outreach and advocacy through the office of the Rev. Canon Carmen Guerrero.
What you can do
For those who want to learn more or who want their congregations to become involved, advocates have plenty of suggestions about how to start.
Contact one of the advocacy organizations, suggests Parkins. “The best resource is the National Immigration Forum. They produce the best advocacy materials and they have a website. Then there’s the interfaith Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”
Stickney in Maine suggests helping detainees by contacting their consulates, keeping them in touch with family by writing letters and making phone calls, helping with travel arrangements, giving English lessons and raising money for plane tickets.
“Gather people together to hear the stories,” suggests Aid. That’s how her Washington state congregation became so passionate about the issue. At a big meeting one afternoon, “30 people from the English congregation came, and they just heard stories.”
One story came from a woman whose husband had been detained the week before. “She was just devastated, had to sell her house and is just lost...Her story really touched people’s hearts,” says Aid.
Now, at St. Matthews, Aid has people signed up to visit detainees at the nearby Northwest Detention Center, to phone family members and check on them, to buy phone cards and toiletries and food. “[Detainees] get a very poor meal twice a day, and if they want anything else, they have to buy it,” says Aid.
“The biggest thing, though, is community organizing. Whatever a congregation can do to begin to facilitate the [immigrant] community organizing itself is a help, she says. ”There is a huge need to have the mainstream, English-speaking congregations involved in this because these are the folks who can really move the political process"
To learn more
The National Immigration Law Center (213-639-3900) offers publications as PDFs: Know your rights alerts about raids, protests, immigration enforcement information; Disaster assistance; and Benefits.
The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (202-383-5986) offers fact sheets on immigration law, family-sponsored immigration, employment-based immigration and naturalization, plus legislation, news, how to take action and other contacts.
Federation for American Immigration Reform (202-328-7004) offers publications and research in support of greater border security and “more traditional rates” of immigration.
New Sanctuary Movement offers information and contacts for legal help as well as resources including a congregational handbook titled For You Were Once a Stranger: Immigration in the U.S. through the Lens of Faith.
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