Immigration Reform and Beyond

citizenshipby Jen Smyers

More than 1.5 million people have been deported in the last five years alone. More than 200,000 US-citizen children have endured the deportation of their parent. Family members are forced by our inefficient visa system to wait up to 24 years to be reunited. Families and communities have been destroyed, all in the name of stubbornly enforcing an antiquated and unjust immigration system.

So why hasn't Congress fixed this broken immigration system that destroys lives, hinders our economic growth, and insults the God-given dignity of each person? The reasons are plentiful: politics, racism, fear of the unknown. Not to mention gerrymandering districts, the extreme absence of empathy, and a cowardly conspiracy to keep low-wage workers subject to exploitative employers.

Communities of faith across the country have taken action to address many of these problems. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists—the list goes on—are advocating for immigration reform that will reunite families and create a path to citizenship for our undocumented community members. Pastors and lay leaders have met with members of Congress; hosted prayer vigils; started programs to provide English classes, immigration legal services, citizenship classes; and educated their communities about the need for immigration reform.

Thus far it hasn't been enough. We'll continue to push, but the more we wait for justice, the more it seems we have the wrong people in Congress to make this work.

In the House of Representatives, there are members who object to creating a path to citizenship because immigrants would "leave the farm." They recognize the poor working conditions but are either in the pockets of those exploiting immigrants for profit or choose to scapegoat immigrants for political gain. Some House members have compared immigrants to animals, insects, and disease. Others are less vitriolic but essentially clueless as to the realities faced by immigrants in this country.

In meeting with members like this, I'm reminded of this powerful verse: "Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…" (Isa. 10:1-2a). As Christians, we are called to "speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Prov. 31:8-9). And as members of a democracy, civic engagement is our patriotic duty. Since this country was founded, American citizens have sought to make this country better by electing more responsive politicians who will help us as a nation progress. By design, our political system demands our participation.

However, we as people of faith all too often fall silent during election season. This should be a key time for us to show our political power and advance social justice. We need to run for office, canvass and make phone calls, volunteer as poll workers, and host and participate in town hall meetings to call attention to the need for immigration reform. We can write letters to local newspapers and help newly naturalized immigrants register to vote and get to their polling locations on Election Day. For immigration reform and for every justice movement, it is essential that faith voices are heard during election seasons. Shoe leather on the campaign trail from people of faith who call for immigration reform translates into candidates who are committed to immigration reform when they win that congressional seat.

Powerful leadership on civic engagement has already been demonstrated by the Mi Familia Vota campaign, the National Council of La Raza, and others that elevate the growing electoral power of the immigrant community. The increasing bipartisan support for reform is due in large part to the powerful civic engagement work that immigrants' rights organizations and the labor movement facilitated in 2012 and continue to move forward.

Although as 501(c)3s, congregations and nonprofit organizations should never endorse candidates or parties, it is our civic and religious duty to engage in the electoral process to send a clear message that we will hold our policymakers accountable to passing real immigration reform. Check out these resources that will help you do just that.  When people of faith actively engage in elections, we will build true political power to win immigration reform and create a new kind of politics on all justice issues, lifting up the poor, the widow, the hungry, the imprisoned, the stranger, the outcast.

Members on both sides of the aisle have indicated that there could be a vote on immigration legislation soon. That will be predicated on the electoral pressure they feel from the faith community and beyond. This election season, we have an opportunity and a responsibility, both as Christians and as Americans, to show that people of faith are getting involved in elections this year, and will be paying close attention to how the immigration debate goes and how justice issues are decided in the future. Let's meet that call.

As associate director for Immigration and Refugee Policy with Church World Service, Jen Smyers meets with policymakers and advocates for improved assistance for refugees resettled in the United States and for immigration reform that reunites families and creates a path to citizenship. She also volunteers as an ESL instructor and serves homeless women in the DC area.

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