[Episcopal News Service – Washington, D.C.] The federal government shutdown did not deter ecumenical immigration activists from spending 12 hours on Oct. 7 at National City Christian Church preparing for their Oct. 8 scheduled congressional visits.
“The government is shutdown and we’re still here doing this work,” said Jen Smyers, Church World Service’s associate director for immigration and refugee policy, adding that the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to add immigration reform to its October legislative calendar.
“We do see hope. We could still pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
More than 250 ecumenical immigration advocates – some 20 Episcopalians including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings – are gathered for the Church World Service Summit on Immigration Reform in the nation’s capital Oct. 7-8 to strategize ways to advance immigrants’ rights through immigration reform and to build more welcoming communities in solidarity with immigrants.
“When immigration reform is passed it will be because of the very important work of people like you,” said Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and a senior fellow in foreign policy, during the day’s first plenary session.
The U.S. Senate passed its immigration bill in June, and House Democrats last week introduced a bill modeled on the Senate’s bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration law, potentially offering a path to citizenship to some 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“House leadership hinted at a week of immigration focus,” said Katie Conway, the Episcopal Church’s immigration and refugee policy analyst, adding that once the government reopens it will first have to deal with the debt ceiling (if the government does not agree to fund a debt-limit increase by Oct. 17 the United States will default on its loans).
“There is still time in November and December, but momentum-wise, October was a good month,” she said, adding, however, that the summit shows, “we’re building a movement bigger than October, building state teams and connecting people in denominations and across denominations.”
The U.S. government was on the eve of its second week of a partial shutdown that began on Oct. 1, the end of the 2013 fiscal year, when negotiations in the U.S. Republican-controlled House of Representatives failed to break a bitter budget standoff over the Affordable Care Act, sparking the first government shutdown since 1995-96.
Global summit attendees – which in addition to Episcopalians included Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholics and others – spent the day in plenary and break-out sessions organized around opening a dialogue on building stronger, more welcoming communities and creating strategies for doing so in attendees’ states, and preparing for the visits with their U.S. Representatives.
“Throughout the broad network of summit attendees, we are united by our desire for a just and humane immigration reform that will reunite families, create a path to citizenship, protect refugees and other vulnerable populations, and drastically change our immigration enforcement policies to be in line with humanitarian values,” said the Rev. John L. McCullough, Church World Service president and CEO, at the outset of the summit.
“We also need to address the root causes of migration, including poverty, trade policies, conflicts around the world, climate change, and other realities that necessitate people migrate to provide for their families.”
During a powerful afternoon of “missiological reflection on immigration,” Miguel A. De La Torre, a Cuban-born professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology, in Denver, Colorado, challenged those present to ask immigrants why they’ve come to the United States.
“Sugar, rum and tobacco, that’s why I am here,” he said, adding that in 1905, the United States owned 70 percent of Cuba’s rural, agricultural lands, and 90 percent of its sugar and tobacco. “When a country exports its natural resources and then buys the finished product back, it becomes subservient.
He then pointed to the damage caused in the Caribbean basin, including countries like Guatemala where the United Fruit Company’s grip on the country’s banana cultivation led to the coinage of the term “banana republic” and the damage caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which in the first 10 years of implementation caused the price of corn to drop 70 percent in Mexico and 1.7 million Mexican farmers to lose their farms.
“When one country builds roads into another country for natural resources and cheap labor, why are we surprised when those people take those same roads,” he asked.
The U.S. immigration issue is the result of 100 years of neo-imperialism, said De La Torre.
“Forget being Christian, it’s about being humans. No bill is going to fix it. It took 100 years to get here; it may take 100 years for us to get out.”
Summit objectives included: to discuss the implications of migration and immigration reform and how it applies at the community level; to allow faith leaders to learn from specialists and advocacy and grass-roots strategizing to lift up their voices most effectively on immigration issues and to empower their communities with the same skills; to enhance the capacity of national denominations and local faith groups to build more welcoming communities; and to facilitate meetings between faith leaders and their U.S. congressmen, allowing them to share their support for immigration reform and encourage their elected officials support for positive legislation.
“Migration has been an intrinsic part of human history, as people have sought more abundant or stable food sources, resources and the ability to make a living, space and freedom of many sorts, companions, safety, adventure, greater justice and the ability to live in peace,” said Jefferts Schori in a reflection prepared for the summit.
“The character of the United States is rooted in the experience of migrants, and our much-vaunted creative spirit has depended on the gifts of newcomers. Yet our immigration law is clearly broken.”
Jennings reminded the Episcopalians from Georgia, Washington, South Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan, during an afternoon strategy session aimed at building denominational teams to promote the rights of immigrants and refugees, that the Episcopal Church’s advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform dates back 25 years.
Most recently, in July 2012 the 77th General Convention passed Resolution D059, “Halt Unjust Immigration Reform,” as well as D011, “Reform Unequal Immigration Law.” D059 calls for a halt to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities Program, which was intended as a way for federal officials to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
Moving forward, and following the passage of an immigration bill, the faith community’s immigration work and helping create hospitable communities is just beginning.
“Implementation will be huge and require as much involvement, which will take years,” said Conway. It will be a decade before these people are permanent residents or green-card holders; a decade of assisting and navigating the system.”
– Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.