For You Were Aliens in the Land of Egypt

Faith Communities Unite Behind Immigration Reform

People of many faith traditions are pushing for comprehensive reform because it’s rooted in their spiritual beliefs, write Marta Cook and Ann Garcia.

President Obama holds a Passover seder at the White House. Passover observations will be finished next week, but an important issue—comprehensive immigration reform—remains unfinished in our nation. (AP/Pete Souza)
President Obama holds a Passover seder at the White House. Passover observations will be finished next week, but an important issue—comprehensive immigration reform—remains unfinished in our nation. (AP/Pete Souza)

This week Jewish faith communities are celebrating Passover, one of the religion’s most sacred holidays that commemorates the Hebrew people’s escape from enslavement in Egypt to freedom in a new land. In the book of Exodus, God directs the emancipated people of biblical Israel to treat all people in their midst justly and with respect, whether they are native born and citizens of the land or not. According to Exodus, God tells the Israelites, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

By the middle of next week, Passover observations will be finished, but an important issue—comprehensive immigration reform—remains unfinished in our nation. As we turn our attention to immigration we should recognize the strong parallels between Passover and the life experiences of those who wish to immigrate to this country and become hard-working members of the American community. America’s tradition as the “Mother of Exiles” came about precisely because it has welcomed millions of immigrants since 1886. And though they no longer arrive in Ellis Island, Lady Liberty’s torch continues to inspire thousands of immigrants to move from hunger, insecurity, and oppression to achieving the American Dream for themselves and their children—just as the Hebrews sought a better life for themselves.

The Exodus story and its lesson of welcoming the “other” is a story repeated in other faith traditions—and it’s a major reason why many faith groups are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. In an era of partisan polarization immigration reform is one of the few issues that transcends political divides largely due to the unwavering support from America’s faith communities. Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and mainline churches alike have all been actively fighting for comprehensive reform.

Some of the reasons for their support are practical—priests, rabbis, and imams see the fallout of having no legal path to citizenship among their parishioners, who live in constant fear of their family being torn apart because an undocumented mother or father could be deported. But one of the main reasons is that most religions believe that showing kindness and hospitality to the stranger is a central tenet of their faith.

Last September, the Center for American Progress published a report that documented the increasing momentum within faith groups for comprehensive immigration reform. For years, many people of faith have worked tirelessly in the shadows of media attention to care for their immigrant neighbors. But in the past six months their grassroots efforts have strengthened and spread as immigration advocates are calling for passage of comprehensive immigration reform this year.

And while grassroots activism spreads, national faith advocacy groups are renewing their efforts to persuade policymakers to reform the broken immigration system once and for all. On March 21, a broad coalition of religious organizations from across the faith spectrum played a key role in delivering an estimated 200,000 immigrants and their supporters to the National Mall for the Change Takes Courage and Faith march and the interfaith service that took place before it. The day after the March, people of faith took their calls for comprehensive immigration reform directly to the offices of 238 members of Congress from 41 states in conjunction with the Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a movement comprised of Christian social justice activists. On that same day a prominent group of faith leaders met with senior White House officials to press their case for immigration reform.

A recent survey further confirms widespread support for comprehensive immigration reform among faith communities. The Public Religion Research Institute‘s March 2010 survey found that religious voters are more likely to “strongly favor” reform than voters not ascribing to religious faiths. In fact, a majority of Catholics, white Evangelicals, and white mainline Protestants “strongly support” an earned path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. This support is fundamentally rooted in their faith traditions as is shown by the religious respondents’ belief in the dignity of every person, as made in God’s own image.

Those surveyed also agree that tough, fair, and practical immigration reform strengthens our economy. And they’re right: If legalized, immigrants will contribute even further to our country’s economic growth.

But despite widespread public support, comprehensive immigration reform faces opposition from certain politicians who are using the issue as a weapon to divide the American people. Indeed, American history bears witness to waves of nativists who would rather faithful Americans forget both the message of holy scriptures and the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and try to instill fear based on racial and ethnic differences.

During the mid-19th century there was widespread public resistance to Irish immigrants. Over the decades the targets changed to Eastern Europeans and Asians. Now many of the targets are Latinos and Muslims. The targets may change, but it is all based on the same fear and ignorance.

People of faith see comprehensive immigration reform as an opportunity to restore a sense of civility and common cause in the national political arena. And they are not alone in their fight—after all, reform makes economic sense, it makes moral sense, and it is indeed a spiritual requirement for many faith traditions.

Let’s do ourselves a favor as a nation and skip the partisan gridlock. Instead, we should focus on creating a strong immigration reform package that reflects our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, strengthens the economy as it struggles to climb out of the recession, and respects the dignity of all people who come to this nation.

Marta Cook is a Fellows Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program and Ann Garcia is Special Assistant for Immigration Policy at American Progress.

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Ann Garcia

Policy Analyst