Yesterday, President Barack Obama spoke on the moral issue of reforming a "broken and dangerous" immigration system, in a speech that grew out of a conversation with Evangelical Christian leaders just a few weeks ago. Many diverse religious leaders were present at American University for the president's first major address on an issue that has united many of us in the faith community.
The speech put the moral issues front and center: the painful consequences of separating families, and highlighting the importance of religious voices who are speaking out more and more. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs, was asked to introduce the president. Obama acknowledged the decades-long failure of politics, and of both parties, which has helped to create this crisis, and said it was time to show leadership by acknowledging federal responsibility for comprehensive reform; and that he believed crucial immigration reform is an issue that can't be kicked down the road any longer.
He laid out a comprehensive and compelling framework for reform, saying that "means being honest about the problem, and getting past the false debates that divide the country rather than bring it together." We need to balance calls for either amnesty or deportation for the 11 million immigrants who live in America without legal status and find "a practical, common-sense approach." Bringing people out of the shadows, both legalizing workers' status and holding employers responsible, no longer penalizing the children of undocumented parents, and creating a tough and earned path to citizenship were laid out as the best way forward. He committed himself to securing our southern border, but said that task would never be completed without reform at the same time. We are both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, he said, and we must find a solution that is consistent with both of those principles.
The questions that went unanswered in the president's speech were what's next and what is the plan and timeline now for action in the U.S. Congress? It was encouraging to see a religiously and racially diverse audience of faith leaders standing with the president, calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Now the task is for religious leaders to stand up in their own communities and, in particular, press their own political representatives to put narrow political interests aside and take a moral stand for necessary reform. The faith community must call out politicians to act responsibly and to shame them if they use undocumented 7-year-old kids for political purposes in elections. And it's time for religious leaders to publicly challenge the demagoguery on the issue of immigration that is regularly practiced by cable television and radio talk show hosts.
For too many years, there have been two signs up at our southern border: "No Trespass" and "Help Wanted." That hypocrisy has placed many vulnerable people in desperate and dangerous situations. It's time for all of us, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, to take responsibility for fixing it. And the faith community can lead the way.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com.