A group of Washington-based nuns rolled into Southern Arizona Tuesday to ask for immigration reform and to learn about the issue firsthand from the region known as the epicenter of the border debate.

The “Nuns on the Bus” tour is made up of a group that garnered headlines during last year’s presidential race for supporting health care reform.

The nuns told a room full of sympathizers Tuesday evening at the Albert D. Garcia Justice Center on the Pascua Yaqui Nation that what Americans need is an immigration policy that reflects their values, not their fears.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, told the crowd of about 190 that she was very happy that Washington finally had agreed to debate immigration reform. She took it as a sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, she said.

“All of us have been affected by immigration,” Campbell said.

The tour started in late May this year in Connecticut. Wednesday the nuns will be in Nogales, Arizona and in Phoenix.

Before the tour ends in San Francisco next week, the nuns will have travelled 6,500 miles across 15 states and made stops in 40 cities.

At the local event organized by the office of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s, the Tucson Democrat’s spokesman, Ruben Reyes, said it was fitting that the theme of immigration be discussed in Native-American land, since it was the indigenous people who first dealt with the issue in the Americas.

Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O' odham Naton, said the Tohono O' odham were divided from their brethren when Arizona became part of the U.S. and that he longs for reunification with his people in Mexico.

But he added that the increase of border crossers and drug dealers, combined with what he called bullying by Border Patrol officers who often confuse Native-Americans with undocumented immigrants, had turned them into hostages in their own land.

“For those reasons we have to be a table, we have to be included in these discussions,” Norris Jr. said.

After the discussions, Campbell said that the plight of the Pascua Yaquis was a new revelation for her and that it brings a new dimension to the immigration debate.

Last year, the nuns came under scrutiny by the Vatican for having doctrinal problems and for allegedly focusing their efforts on social issues while not speaking out against abortion and gay marriage. But this year the bishops have been very supportive of them everywhere they have been, Campbell said, and she believes that with their help, immigration reform will take place.

“The bishops are really speaking out on this issue. We stand together,” Campbell said. “I have a half-joke: If you’ve got the chamber of commerce and the unions, you get the evangelicals and the progressives of religious faith, you get the nuns and the bishops together; this is going to happen.”

Contact reporter Joseph Treviño at jtrevino@azstarnet.com or at 807-8029.