Principled Immigration Reform or Second-Class Status?

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, Rev. John L. McCullough, and Rabbi David Saperstein | January 29, 2014

Photo: CWS

Photo: CWS

As originally published by The Hill, January 29, 2014, 2 p.m.

As Congress works to repair our nation’s immigration system – broken and immoral – we are encouraged by Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) announcement that the Republican leadership will soon release principles to guide the House of Representatives’ legislative work on immigration reform.

An initial sketch of these principles was recently released in the media and we are pleased to see this momentum for reform. Yet the religious community remains deeply troubled by the hesitation to move forward on a path to citizenship for our undocumented community members – particularly after the Senate bill did include a path to citizenship that garnered overwhelming bipartisan support.

As leaders within the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities, we firmly believe that Congress must enact legislation that creates a clear, timely and accessible path to citizenship and that prioritizes family unity.

Keeping people in a permanent underclass is wrong and exploitive. The marginalization of immigrant groups and others in our history has taught us this lesson that we must learn anew. Our teachings call us to advocate for equal rights for the millions of aspiring Americans whose lives are already woven into the fabric of our congregations, schools and communities.

We remember the histories of our own faith communities. Many of us came because of hunger and religious persecution, in search of safety for our families and economic opportunity – just as new immigrants do who arrive today. We remember that our sacred texts call upon us to receive and love the sojourner, for we ourselves were once “strangers in the land of Egypt.” As religious leaders, we have an ethical responsibility to serve as a moral compass for our country. We have tried to do so over the past century by building some of the largest and most effective programs in the nation to welcome immigrants and resettle refugees. But today we must do so as well by calling for our nation to abide by a higher law, a law that provides justice to our neighbors and creates welcome for the sojourner.

Legislation that would grant temporary status but deny individuals a timely, realistic opportunity to obtain a green card and apply for citizenship is simply bad policy. We believe there is a moral and policy gap in asking people to register for a system that would institutionalize a “second” class and create roadblocks that prevent them from ever achieving permanent status or applying for citizenship, an inherent part of the American dream.

Many communities of faith witness daily the opportunity and pride that citizenship preparatory classes and naturalization ceremonies bring to our immigrant brothers and sisters. A path to that leads only to second-class status, would, in contrast, mean that instead of helping our community members foster patriotism by studying U.S. history and civics for the citizenship exam, we would be telling them “You’ll never really be an American.” That is contrary to the core principles of liberty and equality on which this country was founded, and to the pride we have in our national identity as a land of opportunity.

We need immigration reform legislation that lives up to our country’s highest values and that reflects the idea that our country’s strength relies first and foremost on the strength of our families. Too many children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, have been pulled from their parents’ arms during immigration raids in our communities. Too many live in the homes of friends, relatives, and even foster parents and without the stability that family provides.

As we learn more in the coming days, we hope and pray that House leadership is grounding their work in the fundamental proposition that welcoming new immigrants is a key tradition of our nation. The historical witness of our country as a beacon of hope, freedom, and welcome for those fleeing persecution, war, injustice, and dire circumstance defines our nation’s identity at home and abroad. The tapestry of our nation’s multicultural identity is a beautiful witness to the strength of America both as an idea and a nation.

While many issues divide our country and our politics, immigration reform is not and ought not be one of them. With more than 70 percent of Americans supporting a path to citizenship, immigration reform would be a powerful demonstration of bipartisan agreement and could create a new spirit of cooperation and progress as Republicans and Democrats together choose to be on the right side of history.

In the past three decades, we’ve never been closer to passing immigration reform than now. We pray that Speaker Boehner and the House of Representatives have the resolve and moral courage to get this done. If we miss this moment, we will not only waste an incredible opportunity, but will also deny our country the creative, human potential that comes from united families and hard work. And that, in a word, would be a moral and human travesty.

Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. McCullough is president and CEO of Church World Service. Saperstein is director and counsel for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.