Immigration Reform's Post-Election Potential

By Glen Peterson 1-28-2009

Just a few months ago, Christian advocates of immigration reform believed that the political environment in the country would make it very difficult to make the legislative changes necessary to provide relief to out-of-status immigrants to the U.S. These changes to the law would be required to give even the most hard-working and conscientiously law-abiding immigrants an opportunity to seek legal status. Just a few months ago, we were thinking that the progress to be hoped for would be limited and hard fought.

A new day has dawned with a new Congress and a new administration. The victories will still be hard fought, but more is expected in terms of results.

Frank Sharry of America's Voice says, "We believe that there is likely to be a great window of opportunity probably between September of 2009 and maybe the end of March 2010 in which President Obama and the new Congress are likely going to work together to fashion a historic overhaul of our broken immigration system." Others have said that significant progress can and will be made by Thanksgiving 2009.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles, says, "Our current immigration policies-intermittent worksite raids, local law enforcement involvement, and a wall along our southern border, among other enforcement actions -- have led to the separation of immigrant families, an increase in fear and mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities, and discord and violence along our southern border."

"As a nation, we cannot have it both ways," he continued. "We cannot accept the toil and taxes of immigrants while relegating them to a permanent underclass subject to abuse and exploitation. The issue of immigration is an economic and social issue, for sure, but ultimately is a humanitarian one and should be viewed through that lens. And so I call up the new administration, the new Congress, to take up and enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation during the 111th Congress and during the year 2009. Immigrants must be brought out of the shadows so that they can fully contribute to our nation's future economic and social wellbeing."

As people who take scripture seriously, we see God regularly coming to the rescue of those denied a voice, speaking forcefully to those who would stand against these powerless ones. Today it is clear that the undocumented are unable to speak to this broken system and have no political power to leverage on their own behalf. It is the Church's job to help give voice to their struggle. It seems to us that God's message to those who build political capital for themselves by attacking the undocumented is clear: "Don't take advantage of poor people just because they are poor. Don't beat down those who are in need by taking them to court." (Proverbs 22:22 NIrV)

It is interesting to note that candidates are not finding political success with their 'enforcement-only' message either. America's Voice research shows that voters strongly support an immigration solution where candidates worked to enact real reform. During this past election, there were 22 battleground House and Senate races where an enforcement hawk challenged a more reform-minded politician, and the reformers won in 20. Immigration, it seems, is not the wedge issue some wanted it to be. Even in these tough economic times, polling shows voters support a comprehensive solution that turns undocumented workers into taxpayers and restores the rule of law. And, they agree that legalization rather than mass deportation is the stronger approach.

This is important news for us in Arizona where the emotion of the debate can become overwhelming. As the church, it is our job to help communicate to both sides a vision of shared prosperity and the forging of a new social contract where together we will find the solutions to these difficult problems. Through our education efforts to suburban evangelicals, we have found unlikely allies who choose to stand alongside immigrants. Going in humbly with plenty of good information (something largely missing in the immigration debate) that depicts immigrants as the tax-paying, law-abiding, complementary workers they are, and framing solutions that both address enforcement concerns and affirm the dignity of human beings, has been a good strategy for finding common ground and interesting alliances.

For Christians, now is the time to act. We cannot wait any longer. Many organizations are mobilizing to be prepared for what might be a Kairos moment -- a God-moving moment. People of faith around the country are coordinating prayer vigils during the month of February highlighting the need for reform. Prayer vigils can be connected to in-district visits to members of congress on their first break from Washington, D.C. You can visit to engage activity in your area or to connect your work with the larger community of faith. In Southern California, students, youth workers, pastors, and other concerned Christians will organize prayer vigils and visits to members of congress to call for an overhaul of the immigration system for the 21st century.

This year could be a historic opportunity where we see what could be the most important piece of legislation for poor people of color in the U.S. since Civil Rights pass and become law. This is a moment we want to look back on in confidence, knowing we did all we could to make justice for millions a reality. In order to win on immigration reform, we need to get 279 votes: One president, 60 senators, and 218 representatives.

Ian Danley is a youth pastor with Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, Arizona.

Glen Peterson has 30 years of experience working with faith-based and community organizations that serve immigrant populations dealing with economic development, community issues, and family economic well-being. He is now a consultant with Capacity Partnership Group and blogs about immigration at People Migrate.

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