Faith communities across the nation are relying on marches, books and multistate radio ad campaigns to launch bigger and bolder efforts to push for comprehensive immigration legislation this year.
“Our nation can no longer wait,” reads an e-postcard for members of Congress posted on the Justice for Immigrants website — the Catholic campaign for immigration overhaul.
Religious groups have been involved in the immigration debate for years, but they’ve become more united and creative in the effort.
Last summer, the Evangelical Immigration Table launched a $400,000 multistate ad campaign “encouraging prayer and action on common-sense reform” in key congressional districts.
Catholic dioceses across the country sponsored Mass for Immigration Reform services.
A group of nuns rode a bus cross-country holding events on a “journey for justice.”
“Far more conservative groups are getting on board, which in terms evangelical activism, it’s pretty important,” said Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, political science department chair at Gordon College who has written about evangelicals and the immigration issue.
The support from the faith groups could be crucial to the immigration debate, she said. It could give lawmakers on the fence the support they need.
In Arizona, the issue has been important to religious leaders for a long time, said Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Diocese, and efforts will continue until something is done.
“Arizona’s religious, civic and business leaders and its people need to make their voices heard,” Kicanas said. Local events are being planned for November.
Tucson was home to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s and still has active faith-based groups that provide humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert.
“The faith community has been an essential support and a vital part of every immigrant group in history, and that hasn’t changed at all,” said John Fife, a retired Presbyterian pastor here and human-rights activist.
What’s unique this time, he said, is that the leadership of virtually every faith community has united in supporting comprehensive immigration legislation that includes a path to legal status to the more than 11 million estimated to be in the country illegally.
Fife co-founded the Sanctuary Movement, in which volunteers aided Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fleeing their war-torn countries. The movement spread to more than 500 churches nationwide.
Even though the wars are over, continuing socioeconomic problems, natural disasters and violence continue to push Central Americans north.
Border Patrol apprehensions of non-Mexicans are rising, especially in the Southwest, and more than 90 percent come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“If people don’t have a permanent place to live nor hope, they will look to the other side,” said Armando Guerra, Episcopal bishop of Guatemala.
Guerra visited Arizona this week to learn about border conditions and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels. The church also celebrated 20 years of the Guatemala Project, an informal partnership with Mayan people in rural Guatemala that supports health workers and delivers medical supplies.
During his trip, Guerra walked parts of a migrant trail near Arivaca with Fife, spotting old backpacks and clothes left behind by the migrants.
“I felt an extreme sadness,” Guerra said. “You could feel the tears of the men, women and children.”
He wants to go back to Guatemala and better communicate the conditions of the border to those thinking of coming, he said.
But once people make up their minds, he said, it’s very hard to convince them otherwise.
Part of the solution is immigration legislation that allows people to come and work temporarily and provides a path for those who want to stay permanently, he said.
But there’s also a great need to address the root causes of migration by providing more jobs and education opportunities in their home countries so they don’t have to leave in the first place, which is one of the principles promoted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As they go forward, the biggest challenge for religious groups pushing for immigration overhaul is overcoming the political rhetoric that defines migrants as criminals, illegals and as a threat, Fife said.
“But when bishop (Guerra) comes and describes the people from his church that are migrating as the poor, as families trying to reunite, as people who are poor and desperate and in many cases hungry trying to care for their children, that’s a very different description and makes a great deal of difference.”
And seeing it as a moral issue is at the core of many of the campaigns.