Immigrant advocates are cautious, but they see signs of hope for comprehensive immigration reform, given recent political developments.
On June 15, President Barack Obama announced a new policy that the federal government will not deport some young undocumented immigrants, which could help him in an election year with Latino voters, while putting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, on the defensive.
The president issued his policy just three days after 150 evangelical Christian leaders endorsed an overhaul of immigration policy and called for a bipartisan solution that transcends the polarization, name-calling and misrepresentations that have marred the national debate.
“From study of the Bible’s teaching about immigrants to concern for fixing America’s immigration system, evangelicals are saying, ‘This is the time for immigration reform,’” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Catholics who study the immigration issue and work with migrants were pleased with last week’s events, but added that a great deal of work remains to implement lasting reforms.
“It’s too early to say there is a major change under way, but this is really a good sign for those who have been pushing so long for immigration reform,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Schneck said the president’s policy and evangelicals’ support for immigration reform could increase the chances of legislation being passed. Immigration activists continue to support the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide conditional permanent residency to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16. The legislation, which has been supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was stalled last year in the Senate.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but, still, this is a really good sign for an opening for some kind of bipartisanship on this issue,” Schneck said.
Passing the DREAM Act — which critics have panned as amnesty that would reward and encourage more illegal immigration — is an “ultimate goal” made easier by the president’s new policy, which mirrors the DREAM Act in many ways, said Iliana Holguin, an attorney and executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services Inc. for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.
“It’s definitely a positive step forward. It’s still a long way from the DREAM Act. This is a temporary benefit, which is great. It will allow (immigrants) the ability to enter the workforce and give them a chance to use the degrees they worked so hard to earn,” said Holguin, whose diocesan ministry assists the migrant and refugee communities along the U.S.-Mexico border in western Texas.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration and Public Affairs for the bishops' conference, said the president’s announcement was “sound policy.”
“The affected people are a sympathetic group to most Americans,” said Appleby, noting that the policy applies to some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain requirements, such as being college students or military service members.
“A lot of these children are smart, ambitious, hardworking. They want to be Americans, and they will do whatever they are asked to do to attain that,” said Appleby, who called the president’s policy a “good first step.”
“I think it will help build momentum. Certainly, there are those who are upset by it, but, frankly, Congress has been at a standstill on this issue while a lot of these people are being deported,” Appleby said.
Obama’s policy has prompted criticisms from Republicans and conservative commentators, who have accused the president of political pandering and making an illegal end run around Congress.
“It is apparent that the goal of the Obama administration is not to govern, but rule by edict. This again is a reflection of the desperation of President Obama and his liberal-progressive disciples as November draws nearer,” said U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., on his Facebook page.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that supports strict immigration laws and opposes illegal immigration, wrote on his blog that the president had committed a “lawless act.”
“The illegal immigrants in question will receive two-year renewable permits to live legally in the United States and an Employment Authorization Document — that, in English, is what we call ‘amnesty,’” Krikorian wrote.
Romney also criticized the president for not taking action on the immigration issue earlier in his administration. However, Romney dodged questions as to whether he would reverse the policy during interviews on Fox News and CBS’ Face the Nation.
Immigration remains a politically sensitive topic. Still, there are signs of political ferment, with the recent statement in favor of immigration reform endorsed by evangelical denomination leaders, journalists, intellectuals, pastors and activists, among others.
In an “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform,” the evangelical leaders make the case that humane immigration reform should be a moral priority. The leaders also announced the creation of an “Evangelical Immigration Table” to advance a cohesive, pro-immigration reform message and strategy while building political will in the pews.
Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, said he signed the statement because immigration reform is more than just an “issue” to families.
“It profoundly affects their stability, structure and quality of life,” said Daly, who added that he was encouraged that evangelical leaders, who have significant theological differences, “have come together to declare with one voice that our government must respect and balance both the rule of law and the God-given humanity of all people in working toward an immigration solution that puts principles ahead of politics.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the immigration crisis “touches every level of society.”
“If we as a nation are going to resolve this crisis in fair and equitable ways, we must engage all levels of civic society, perhaps most importantly people of faith," Land said.
Help See Connections
In a way, evangelicals are catching up with Catholics on the issue. The bishops have long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, calling for laws that would help immigrant families stay together.
Holy Cross Father Dan Groody, a University of Notre Dame professor who has written extensively about and produced documentaries on immigration, told the Register that evangelicals are grappling with the treatment of this issue in holy Scripture and the moral imperative to respond to the migrant’s plight.
“Migration is in our physical and spiritual genes. Our religious traditions are rediscovering these ancient truths,” said Father Groody, who suggested that the faith community can offer a new perspective on the issue.
“Right now, in the mainstream culture, the operative imagination of immigration is a fear of the other, a fear of the foreigner. I think what the mainstream religious traditions can do, especially those drawing from biblical sources, is to help people see the connections to each other. I think what the religious community is now saying is that the politics of fear do nothing to build a better society,” Father Groody suggested.
Holguin said she was not surprised to see evangelicals support immigration reform.
“I think immigration is a human rights, human dignity issue. I think it’s very natural for faith organizations, once they educate themselves on why our immigration system is broken — it becomes easy for people of faith to see why comprehensive reform is needed and why it’s important to move past the harsh rhetoric,” Holguin said.
Appleby added that recent developments show the immigration issue is not going away: “Sooner or later, it will have to be addressed by Congress in a comprehensive way, hopefully in a humane way.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.