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Faith Leaders Push for Immigration Reform

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At a Center for American Progress event on Tuesday, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) called on people of faith to actively support just immigration laws because “faith without works is dead.” A paper on the emerging and growing grassroots movement by faith communities in support of immigration reform by CAP Senior Fellow Sam Fulwood III prompted the event, which included Clyburn, CAP’s Sally Steenland and Angela Kelley, and a panel of religious leaders who have advocated for immigrant rights—some of whom were featured in Fulwood’s report—and who helped the audience understand immigration as a humanitarian issue and agreed the United States should adopt immigration policies that are both accepting and fair.

Fulwood’s paper shed light on how faith communities have influenced the debate on immigration reform. Hundreds of them have stood up and spoken out on behalf of immigrants and their families. Protestant denominations, Latino Evangelicals, Catholic parishes, Jewish congregations, and others have worked alongside groups such as the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, Sojourners, and Catholic Social Services to create a sweeping grassroots movement that supports political leaders in Washington who champion their cause.

Fulwood, who visited several congregations around the country for his report, called attention to the fact that immigration is often demonized in the media. But he said people of faith can change the conversation.

One of the stories in Fulwood’s report was about a woman who was upset after witnessing an immigrant raid in her community. When her husband asked what she could do the woman said, “I can do what Jesus would have done. I’m gonna march to the detention center.” The woman organized a 143-mile pilgrimage from her home to the detention center to highlight the injustices toward immigrant families.

Fulwood said these were the types of stories he tried to highlight—the “stories that people don’t notice, but [that] are occurring.”

It’s important for advocates to put a human face on the immigration debate in this way. Cardinal Roger Michael Mahony, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, explained that “there’s something about this issue, that unless we talk about it from [personal experiences], and can relate our own journeys,” he said. “It becomes a public policy issue separated from people.”

Empathy was an important tool that motivated Reverend Dean Reed, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stephenville, TX, to push for immigration reform. He said. “I always had sympathy for [immigrants],” but after he learned about the similarities between today’s immigrants and his family’s immigration from Ireland, “I realized I [had] empathy for them…and I need to do something about that and respond to that reality.”

This personal connection to immigration reform has been the key to a grassroots movement to change hearts and minds in Rev. Reed’s community. He has “reached out to people that have those sympathies [toward immigrants]…and let them reach out to others that they know.”

Immigration reform leaders in California have picked up on this need for empathy and have focused on energizing the large Hispanic and Asian populations. Like Rev. Reed, Cardinal Mahony said reminding people of the success their families had by immigrating to this country helps convince them that other families deserve the same opportunity.

Rev. Reed reminded the audience of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” poem graven on the Statute of Liberty’s pedestal: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That commitment to justice and freedom for all is at the heart of America and independent of one’s religion—it’s something everyone can relate to on immigration.

Rabbi Jack Moline, of Agudas Achim Congregation in Arlington, VA, and director of public policy for the Rabbinical Assembly, said that immigration reform isn’t a matter of pity. “It is not compassion that impels us to move forward on immigration reform,” he said. “It is [the commitment] to do justice.”

For more on this event please see its events page.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
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Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
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Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi (immigration, race and ethnicity)
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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