Faith Leaders Shape Local Immigration Debates
New America Media, News Analysis, Marcelo Ballvé Posted: Feb 12, 2009
PATCHOGUE, N.Y. -- "When it comes to immigration, the law is an ass." These forceful words were spoken not by an immigration lawyer or activist, but by a lanky, bearded Methodist pastor on Long Island. The Rev. Thomas Goodhue directs the influential 800-member Long Island Council of Churches, and last month he joined a coalition of religious leaders calling for immigration reform.
"Current immigration policy violates everything our religious traditions teach us about compassion for the sojourner among us," said Goodhue, flanked by Protestant, Muslim and Jewish leaders.
The urgency of their call was magnified by the location: a synagogue in Patchogue, a seaside town where only a few months before a gang of local high schoolers killed Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant.
Police labeled the Nov. 8 murder of Lucero a hate crime, and it galvanized immigrant advocates on Long Island.
Lately, as the temperature rises in local and state immigration battles, with a backlash against immigrants often serving as a backdrop, clergy have emerged as influential voices.
Around the country, particularly in places where immigration has only recently emerged as a major issue, clergy have argued publicly for solution-oriented policies. They've also warned against the scapegoating of undocumented immigrants.
In Nashville, Catholic and Jewish leaders joined in a coalition called "Nashville for All of Us," which defeated a ballot measure to designate English the city's official language. Proponents said it would help immigrants assimilate and save the city money, but Bishop David Choby was among those arguing that the measure was mean-spirited and impractical, since it would marginalize the foreign-born from civic life.
Of course, religious leaders aren't always able to push their immigration views on their faithful. Sometimes there seems to be a disconnect between clergy's attitudes and the more conservative views of their congregants.
Last year, when Utah's legislature was considering a bill to put the vise on illegal immigrants in the state, flags were raised by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is officially called.
Though the church took no official stance, one prominent leader, Elder Marlin K. Jensen, urged Utah residents to be compassionate and put a human face on the issue.
"Meet an undocumented person," he said, according to an article last year in the Deseret News. "Come to know their family."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also reportedly asked lawmakers for provisions that would shield them from liability when providing charity to undocumented immigrants.
Despite these caveats, polls showed the bill enjoyed broad popularity in Utah, where Mormons are a majority.
In the end, the crackdown passed easily. Among other hardline tactics, it deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration policy, and limits undocumented immigrants' access to state and local services. It goes into effect July 1.
Polls also show that evangelicals tend to favor stricter immigration policies than most Americans.
Still, evangelical leaders formed a coalition called Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which includes evangelicals. The coalition has advocated for federal solutions that combine strong border security with a route to "earned" legalization for the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants.
One evangelical group has been particularly active at the state and local level. The National Coalition for Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, or CONLAMIC for its acronym in Spanish, has tapped into its network of pastors in some 30 states to organize protest vigils in immigration hotspots like Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia and Rhode Island.
The Rev. Miguel Rivera, CONLAMIC president, has said the backlash and discrimination against immigrants won't stop until Washington, D.C., acts decisively to fix the immigration system.
It isn't always simple for local church leaders to take a position on an issue as sensitive and controversial as immigration. It took the Long Island Council of Churches a full six months to hammer out a common position on immigration, said Goodhue.
He acknowledged that there were "mixed feelings" in the churches. "It was very difficult, very complex."
The Long Island suburbs, particularly exurban Suffolk County, have for more than a decade struggled to integrate immigrants, mostly Hispanics, into community life.
Last year, Long Island Wins, a local immigrant advocacy campaign, conducted focus groups with a cross-section of Long Islanders to better understand how their views on immigration were shaped.
Among the findings: religious leaders were looked to as trusted sources of information on the issues, and could have a profound influence on residents' views.
"That's why it's so important for the clergy to step forward and take a lead on this issue," said Maryann Slutsky, Long Island Wins campaign director, "because they can have a very positive impact."
The focus group’s findings gave new impetus to the organization's efforts to reach out to religious leaders. The press conference in the Patchogue synagogue, partly organized by Long Island Wins, was one significant step in that direction.
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