People of faith know all about deserts. Especially at this time of year, as Christians end their Lenten observances and Jews recall the Passover, deserts are at the center of the spiritual lives of millions of religious Americans. They are places of fear and insecurity, but also ones in which we encounter the God who gives us hope for the road ahead and ultimately leads us to freedom.
Remarkably, the national debate on immigration reform has traveled a similar path — from fear to hope — over the course of the last 40 days. At Ash Wednesday Service March 1, Archbishop Roger Cardinal Mahony called for a campaign of civil disobedience against the bill passed in the House late last year which would, among other troubling provisions, make every undocumented person in the United States a felon. The bill, he said, was “blameful, vicious.”
A firestorm of criticism ensued, with one of the principle authors of the House bill, a Catholic, calling Cardinal Mahony and other members of the Catholic leadership “hypocrites” and “liars” over their opposition to his bill. His message of fear could not have been clearer.
But in a season of hope — and in a country of hope — such a message of fear could never carry the day. And it has not.
Hundreds of thousands of people across the country used the Lenten season to peacefully demonstrate against the “blameful, vicious” immigration bill that had passed the House. Their message was as plain as it was hopeful: We are hardworking people who believe the United States can deliver a brighter future.
Any question about whether this message of hope had triumphed over the message of fear on immigration that dominated the country on Ash Wednesday was settled as Passover and Holy Week approached. On April 11, the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate released a rare joint statement where they walked back from the provision of the House bill that would make felons out of each undocumented person in this country.
Just a few short months earlier, the Speaker of the House had voted in favor of exactly the fearful provision he now was forced to oppose. Similarly, just two weeks earlier the Senate Majority Leader had laid before the Senate a bill — which he wrote — including several similar provisions.
With hope having trumped fear, policy makers now have an opportunity to ratify a new, hopeful immigration policy that celebrates the dignity and humanity of undocumented people in this country. That they would do that after having been at home in their states celebrating some of the most hopeful seasons in the Judeo-Christian traditions — Easter and Passover — would be a fitting end to the season started with Cardinal Mahony’s challenging Ash Wednesday sermon.
Today our deserts are still full of God’s people. Ethnic identity has changed, but so much of the story remains the same. Families continue to wander, this time in the Sonora and Arizona deserts, in search of safe haven — the freedom to make a better life, a place to make their homes. In these days of hope, a fair and compassionate immigration bill could serve as a powerful reminder that while our roads might wind through the desert, they end with freedom and new life.
Denis McDonough is Senior Fellow and Teresita Perez is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress. David Buckley is the Special Assistant to the Director of Faith in Public Life.