Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton preliminarily struck down key provisions in Arizona's infamous SB 1070 law and ruled that states cannot preempt federal law. While important, this is a victory that rings hollow for me and all those who care about the true reform of our immigration system. In many ways, the damage to neighborhoods and communities had already been done, as people did not wait to see how the law would affect them. Many mixed-status families pulled their children out of school and moved out of state, closing stores and restaurants and leaving many immigrant neighborhoods like ghost towns. This did not just affect undocumented immigrants but all those whose status might be called into question -- including citizens, permanent legal residents, and temporary visa holders.
The court's preliminary decision is only the beginning of the litigation process, which will unfold in the coming months. Yesterday's ruling, however, is a necessary first step in affirming the principle that it is the federal government's responsibility to set immigration policy and to enforce that policy. It affirms that even if the federal system is failing, states do not have the authority to set or enforce their own policies.
Immigration is continually labeled as an issue that "deeply divides Americans." But is that true? Recent polling found widespread support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A new study sponsored by America's Voice found that more than 75 percent of Americans who read a description of comprehensive immigration reform said they would support the measure. And according to Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, "More than 8-in-10 Americans -- including overwhelming majorities of white mainline Protestants, Catholics, and white evangelicals -- believe strongly that immigration reform should be guided by the values of protecting the dignity of every person and keeping families together, as well as by such values as promoting national security and ensuring fairness to taxpayers." There is a strong and growing consensus around much of what needs to be addressed by comprehensive reform.
It won't be enough simply to enforce the laws we already have. While we are indeed a nation of laws, we are also a nation made up largely of immigrants and the progeny of immigrants. Moreover, we are a nation made up largely of Christians and people of other faiths -- faiths that teach and compel their followers to care about what happens to the other, and to honor the dignity of everyone created in the image of God. Granted, there is a vocal minority opposed to reform. And ironically, most -- if not all -- of the opponents are the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or great-great-grandchildren of immigrants. Most of these people's ancestors would not have been able to immigrate legally under our current system.
So now what? First of all, as November creeps closer, Bolton's decision assures that comprehensive immigration reform as a moral issue will be front and center this election season. But as people of faith, we must reject the use of this issue to drive fear into the debate and pit citizen against citizen, and citizen against immigrant. We have to reject the politicization of this issue, and the use of immigrant families as tools to win (or make the other lose) an election. And when we see it happening, we need to call it out.
Secondly, it's not enough to repeal the most controversial parts of SB 1070, as important as that is. The overall law still goes into effect today, which will lead to a confusing patchwork of guidelines on the ground in Arizona. This is a costly byproduct of enjoining the law, as law enforcement will have to haphazardly interpret the remaining provisions.
Therefore, lawmakers must act to fulfill their duty to make laws and set federal policy on immigration. It will take fewer politicians and more statesmen and stateswomen to reform our broken system. President Obama must lead on comprehensive immigration reform, and Congress must be willing to lead as well -- by having a fair and truthful debate on this issue and passing a bipartisan bill that will be good for our country. Clearly, the longer they wait, the more dysfunctional our system becomes.
Finally, each of us needs to be willing to lead on this issue. As difficult as it is to talk about issues like this with our friends and families, we have a responsibility to challenge falsehoods and myths about immigrants and talk about the contributions they make to our communities. We need to transform the rhetoric into truth. At the heart of our Christian tradition is the belief that true and lasting transformation is not only possible but necessary, and it can only happen when we are willing to do what needs to be done for the common good.
While I was at an interview yesterday about the Arizona law, I met a young woman. She asked me if I supported the Dream Act. (The Dream Act would allow students who graduate from college or go into the military the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.) I told her that we did, and she responded with thanks. She said a friend of hers just graduated from a prestigious East Coast university at the top of his class, but because he was undocumented, he is not able to get a professional job (despite his intellect and gifts) or go to graduate school. Instead, he is back home working in his family's restaurant business, and our country and society lose out because we aren't utilizing his gifts.
Also yesterday afternoon, children of immigrants -- mostly U.S. citizen children, many or most of whom live in mixed-status households -- held a march across from the White House to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. These children live in fear of being separated from parents and family, many of whom came here for work they couldn't find in their own countries. They came to provide for their families. They want what all parents want -- for their children to be healthy and fed.
Transformation is not easy. In truth, it's very, very difficult. While we need the political will to transform our society, and leadership to get it done, we also need to be personally transformed, and we need to act as agents of transformation. If we fail to think and act differently, if we fail to change the way immigration is understood and debated in this country, we will fail our neighbors, our children, and our God. We have to choose to be transformed, and we have to choose to be active participants in the transformation of our society for good.
Rev. Jennifer Kottler is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners. A long-time advocate for justice, Jennifer has served in advocacy ministry for more than seven years through her work at Protestants for the Common Good (Chicago, IL), the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Chicago Jobs Council.