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October 8, 2015

EDITORIAL: Faith Community’s Response to the Current Anti-Immigrant Wave

I am worried about the moral state of America. Rhetoric from several presidential candidates has become hateful toward immigrants, and now successful community policing methodologies, supported by sheriffs and police chiefs across the country, are on trial in the U.S. Congress.

When I served as United Church of Christ (UCC) Conference Minister in Phoenix, Arizona, for eight years, I saw firsthand how the tactics of criminalizing immigrants, employed by the infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, run counter to communities’ best interests and do nothing to prevent crime. As the Department of Justice has now proven, such tactics increase racial profiling and violate the Fourth Amendment. The so-called “toughest sheriff” in America now continues to be indicted. Yet, somehow, policies like Arpaio’s that lead to racial profiling and the criminalization of immigrants have become commonplace. This is not only an unjust path; it is unworthy of a country made great by immigrants.

The Senate will soon consider S.1814, the “Stop Sanctuary Cities Act.” This bill would punish police departments that limit their collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in order to build trust with the people of the communities they are sworn to protect. Over 320 localities have passed policies that protect immigrant victims and witnesses of crime in so that they may go to police without fearing deportation. S.1814, however, would force local law enforcement officials to act as de-facto ICE agents or risk significant reductions in community safety funding. Should this anti-immigrant legislation pass, it would break the trust law enforcement has built with immigrant communities. The effects would be devastating, leaving undocumented immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes without access to protection, recourse, or legal assistance.

When local police are more focused on immigration status than community safety, families are separated and dreams destroyed. Jorge’s story demonstrates this reality. Jorge (a pseudonym used to protect his family) was a hard worker in his company, an involved father, and active member of his community in Centreville, Virginia. I know Jorge's story because he volunteered at the Centreville Labor Resource Center, a day laborer center that provides a meeting place with safety and security for workers and employers. The center grew out of an immigration initiative started by Wellspring United Church of Christ and a strong coalition of churches, local businesses, and civic organizations.

Jorge and his wife migrated from El Salvador, where Jorge operated a small grocery store, but was threatened and eventually shot by gangs demanding more and more money. They came to the United States seeking safety and a fresh start. After their son was born, they worked even harder to build a life here. One day, Jorge was stopped by police while driving his moped a few miles over the speed limit. This was when Jorge’s life changed. While for most of us, a traffic ticket would not be a life-altering event, for Jorge it was different. He was taken into custody, booked, and jailed. In a panic, his wife paid his bail, but the sheriff's office immediately contacted ICE and removed Jorge to a detention center. He was swiftly deported, torn apart from his family just before Christmas. His wife and son are now separated from Jorge, struggling to support themselves, and without a path to reunification.

Unfortunately, their story is not unusual. In Jorge’s case, and in the case of 11 million other undocumented individuals, something as simple as a speeding ticket can tear apart families and communities, simply because of immigration status. We are a country founded on the hard work and determination of immigrants. Current U.S. immigration policies and proposed legislation stand in sharp contrast to the values we profess as a nation.

As general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, I look to the local congregations who are welcoming immigrants for guidance in effective response to the current anti-immigrant wave. Many of our UCC leaders have supported efforts to build trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement and have seen those efforts successfully protect victims and witnesses of crimes. In 2007, Wellspring UCC started the Centreville Immigration Forum, community dialogues that bring neighbors together to discuss immigration and the growing diversity in Virginia. Through this dialogue, the idea for the Centreville Labor Resource Center was born—the same center where Jorge volunteered before his deportation.

This is how people of faith and good conscience respond. As a nation, we must come together and follow their example by building a country that models inclusion and understanding—not just on immigration, but on race relations in our country overall. We must remember that our faith calls us to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger, and stand in solidarity with the vulnerable, especially those who are excluded or marginalized for their race, nationality or immigration status.

I urge political leaders to consider Jorge’s story and the stories of 11 million other undocumented individuals, and oppose legislation like S.1814. Such legislation would send a message to our immigrant brothers and sisters that we do not care about their safety, that they are not welcomed, and that they are not valued. On the contrary: all are welcome in the realm of God, and it is our call to live that out that welcome.

Dorhauer is general minister and president of the United Church of Christ.

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