The Common Good

Changing the Conversation on Immigration

Sojomail - November 15, 2007


The issue was gaining traction not based on thoughtful discourse, but based on sound bites and less than careful analysis.

- New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, who this week abandoned his plan to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants - a plan that he had hoped would make for increased security, safer roads, and an opportunity to bring immigrants "out of the shadows." (Source: The New York Times)

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HEARTS & MINDS BY JIM WALLIS Changing the Conversation on Immigration

Last spring, Sojourners helped launch Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Following Congress' failure to pass meaningful reform, we have continued to work to provide churches and clergy with effective educational materials, encouraged and mobilized congregations to oppose punitive laws, and supported a rapid response media team of religious leaders around the country to respond to reports of intolerance.

Yesterday, CCIR held a news conference to urge Americans to recall, in the week before Thanksgiving, both the blessings in their lives and the needs of "the least of these" in our nation, many of whom are undocumented immigrants working for a better life. I joined the Most Reverend John Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City, chairman, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration; Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and James Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church & Society.

We released a comprehensive report - A House Divided: Why Americans Of Faith Are Concerned About Undocumented Immigrants - which carefully documents three major consequences of Congress not resolving the issue.

Here are my remarks at the news conference:

The immigration system is broken. We all know that, we all agree on that. We missed a chance to fix it in this Congress and the debate since that time has gone sour. Today we are not here to advocate a bill but to share concerns about our conversation, how we are talking about people.

We've often cited Leviticus 19:34 – "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." Or as Jesus said so clearly, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

This immigration policy question is for us as people of faith the "welcoming the stranger" question. How do you treat those who are strangers in your midst? There is no doubt this debate has turned toward fear and anger. There are legitimate issues at stake. The rule of law is important, the system is broken. But the tenor of the debate has gone in an alarming direction. That's why we're here today. The way we talk about people is off course. Fear and anger dominate the conversation, not a civil discussion about the legitimate issues involved. How do we protect the dignity and the lives of the weakest and most marginalized among us?

I'm concerned about the restrictions, the new legislation being passed in many places. Oklahoma is one example, where in fact assistance to people who are undocumented is being questioned. When you're reaching out to hurting people, you don't check their papers. That's not our job. We don't do government's job for the government. And so we don't want to be in a situation where Christian ministry is made illegal. We're close to that now. You will hear from people in the churches across the political spectrum that if you tell us Christian ministry is illegal, we will go ahead and do Christian ministry whether it is legal or not. I'm concerned about these harsh restrictions that are coming from the states.

I'm also concerned about the talk. Talk is important. How we talk about people is very important. So I'm concerned when I read statements like an Arizona talk show host saying, "What we'll do is randomly pick one night every week where we will kill whoever crosses the border ... step over there and you die. You get to decide whether it's your lucky night or not. I think that would be more fun." Well, it wouldn't be fun. And that kid of talk poisons the body politic. We have to stand up against talk like that.

Thirdly, I'm concerned about what we call family values. The raids have been quite appalling. We are literally taking children from their mothers and fathers, we are separating families. This is not what in our tradition we should do. To protect and support families and those relationships is crucial to us.

So this is a conversation that is quickly going bad. I read today that it's the number two issue in the Iowa primary campaign. It will be a presidential election-year issue. So how we talk about undocumented people is a matter of life and dignity. In fact, Hispanics who have been here for four generations are being looked at askance now as if every Hispanic citizen was undocumented. All of a sudden, the country feels very unsafe and unwelcoming to people of Latino descent. This is something going wrong in our body politic.

We're here to say, let's pay attention how we talk about people and let's come back to the table. We're not going to have immigration reform for some time, perhaps, but let's start a new conversation about what will fix the system and how to treat people humanely in the meantime. It's a matter of life and dignity.

+ Watch video highlights of the news conference

+ Comment on this article on the God's Politics Blog


+ See what's new on the blog of Jim Wallis and friends

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Top Stories:

Christian leaders urge compassion in immigrant debate
Religion News Service
"How we talk about undocumented people is a matter of ... life and dignity," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder and CEO of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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[Jim] Wallis, an evangelical writer and political activist, said his involvement with the initiative came from his desire to “change the conversation on abortion.” There’s common ground around the country among people who want to stop using abortion as a polarizing issue or as a way to leverage votes, he said: “Abortion has been the third wheel in American politics for too long.”

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Liberal evangelical author and activist the Rev. Jim Wallis called abortion "the third rail of American politics" and said the bill "fits where the American people are."

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As a follower of Jim Wallis and reader of his book "God's Politics," I was cautiously optimistic that the conservative wing of the evangelical movement would be spending more energy on what they are for as opposed to what they are against.

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