From "A Day Without Immigrants," San Francisco, 2006
Dozens of local religious and community groups came together Tuesday along with hundreds of reform advocates to insist politicians fix the country's "broken" immigration system.
The event, dubbed "An Interfaith Call to Love," took place Feb. 23 in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral and featured clergy and laity representing Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, as well as testimony from families challenged by current immigration policies.
It was one of more than 100 similar happenings across the nation this month, said Jon Rodney, spokesman for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy in Oakland, one of the groups that helped organize the event. He said religion provides a rich framework from which to build the reform movement.
"There are just some really powerful and broadly held values that religious traditions have: compassion, welcoming neighbors, integrating immigrants into our society so they can contribute," Rodney said.
Manuel De Paz, of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant in Berkeley, said immigration reform is an issue of family values.
"This country is set up on family values," he said. "But our broken immigration system is violating and harming these values."
De Paz, 43, of Oakland attended the Grace Cathedral service and works for immigration reform as a profession. But the fight for justice also has a very personal meaning for him.
De Paz fled political persecution in El Salvador when he was 22, he said. He lost 21 relatives, including three brothers, during the country's 12 years of civil war, from 1980 to 1992.
It took De Paz five months to cross into the United States in 1990, riding cargo trains and, eventually, beneath a banana truck. He didn't have papers when he arrived, but he got his green card in 2003 and became a citizen in 2008.
"A lot of people don’t understand, when people emigrate, people are so desperate," he said, recalling the 24 hours he spent beneath the banana truck without food or water, and only a small hole through which to breathe. "We don't have hope. We don't have the confidence that we're going to succeed. We decide to die just to try to have a chance."
De Paz said he's seen many families torn apart in his work, as undocumented parents are sent out of the country, leaving their children in the hands of U.S. authorities. Since 2008, he said, more than 100,000 parents were deported and thousands of children were left here without their parents. The government takes care of them, but he said he has no doubt this system will create problems in the future as these children seek potentially unhealthy means, such as gang membership, to fill the void left by their parents' departure.
Ideally, De Paz said, the immigration system would set out a clear "path to citizenship" for all undocumented workers. They would first be able to procure a work permit then, over time, apply for a green card and, ultimately, citizenship. Such a system would be a boon to the U.S. economy, he said, as immigrants paid for their documentation, a range of associated legal fees and invested in real estate and goods without fear of harassment.
"I know what to be undocumented means," he said. "When we come here, we are ethical. We have strong values. We are people who are Christians or other religions. We are people who work hard, are very honest. We're part of this economy. We pay taxes. We are people who are working in the field to put food on the table. We are people who are working in janitorial jobs, cleaning in the house, taking care of the children of U.S. citizens.
"But many children who came here very young, or are born here, children of undocumented parents," he continued, "they cannot achieve a higher education because their parents can’t qualify for loans. All the doors to achieve the American dream are closed to our families. That’s why we’re having this fight."
Given the diverse membership of the dozens of involved coaltions in Tuesday's event, there was no shared goal other than to try to get legislators to take action this year to fix the immigration system, said Charlene Tschirhart, interim director of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, another organizer for "An Interfaith Call to Love."
"We all agree the system is broken," said Tschirhart, 70, of Oakland. "This administration said it would take care of the immigration issue early on. Now it looks like it’s being put aside."
Tschirhart said religious groups have a special stake in the fight because of their place on the front lines helping families who are torn apart by current immigration legistation. She said she's worked for social justice for nearly three decades and wants to help "move our society to a more healthy place" in terms of how it deals with undocumented workers.
"We just see this as a crisis of faith that we live in a society that treats a stranger, the immigrant, like this," she said. "We see how desctructive it is to the individual, to the family. Tonight we're standing together. We're reflecting on sacred texts and listening to stories of people who are negatively affected by the broken immigration system. We're praying. But we're also acting as citizens and calling on the government to clean this up."
She said there are an estimated 20 million people in the United States who are "terrorized" by the immigration process, be they undocumented workers, their families or others who come into contact with them.
"This is destroying people," Tschirhart said. "This is not just. It has to change."