Faith Groups Lead Call for Immigration Reform

September 24, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Sept. 24, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Faith communities across the U.S. are using all their gifts - from prayer to potluck dinners - to try to change the way the nation thinks about immigrants.
The heated debates over the nation's health care system have spilled over into immigration issues, say advocates for immigration reform. The most publicized incident, they say, was U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson yelling, "You lie," when President Obama said extending health care to all Americans would not mean insuring illegal immigrants.
The remark is part of larger concerns spurring faith communities to pressure federal policymakers to enact comprehensive reform, said Angela Kelley, vice president for Immigration Policy and Advocacy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank.
The center released a report saying more than 25,000 people gathered in houses of worship to call for immigration reform in the first six months of the year. "Groups from coast to coast have become motivated by moral and theological concerns to advocate on behalf of immigrant workers and their families," she said during a telephone press conference September 23.
The report, "Love Thy Neighbor," chronicles efforts by a wide range of faith groups as they advocate for undocumented workers and their families. Two United Methodist pastors spoke about efforts in Texas and Iowa during the press conference.
In Texas, the Rev. Dean Reed and Lori Stafford joined forces to organize the Welcoming Immigrants Network, a statewide grassroots organization that lobbies lawmakers and organizes prayer vigils and "Breaking Bread and Barriers" covered-dish dinners.
Reed and his congregation will hold an "Evening of Compassion" at First United Methodist Church in Stephenville on September 27. Middle-class Anglos will be exposed to "the human faces behind immigration's broken system," he said.
Last May, more than 40 commemoration events and prayer vigils were held in 15 states on the first anniversary of the Agriprocessors, Inc. plant raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Postville, Iowa.
The Rev. Mike Blevins, who serves two United Methodist congregations near Postville, said the raid ended with 400 people arrested and a community devastated. Since that time, Blevins said, more than 17 congregations have worked together to help heal the community.
"The atmosphere in Iowa has changed dramatically since the raid," Blevins said. "The human faces and stories have made the need for comprehensive immigration reform a story of human suffering."
Kelley said faith groups have had a profound impact on the debate. She pointed to a planned hearing by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to explore the partnership between faith communities and immigration reform.
While health care reform has taken most of the spotlight, Kelley said the time to reform immigration is now.
"I believe Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time," she said.
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.