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Why faith leaders are calling on Congress to tackle immigration reform

In the wake of a federal judge’s ruling that DACA is an illegal overreach of executive authority, faith leaders want bipartisan legislation that will safeguard ‘Dreamers’ and other immigrants

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Demonstrators with the Poor People’s Campaign await processing by U.S. Capitol Police after being peacefully arrested in 2018.

Demonstrators with the Poor People’s Campaign await processing by U.S. Capitol Police after being peacefully arrested at the Capitol in Washington, June 21, 2018, where they protested the Trump administration and Congress’ policies towards immigrant children and families and the poor.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Lorraine Ruiz, 23, was born in Atlixco, Mexico, but came to San Antonio, Texas, with her parents three days before her eighth birthday. The family was so distracted by the move that they forgot all about celebrating Lorraine. It was close to dusk, she said, when her father — a software engineer who’d been hired by an American company — remembered. 

“It wasn’t until the sun was coming down that my dad was like, ‘It’s Lorraine’s birthday today!’” Ruiz said. By the hotel pool, the family had an impromptu celebration, singing “Cumpleanos Feliz,” “Happy Birthday.” 

Since then, the family has celebrated dozens of special occasions in the U.S., from birthdays, to anniversaries, to graduations. They chose to stay together in Texas even after the company that sponsored their visa applications folded and they lost their legal status.

By now, Ruiz is used to living with the uncertainty that stemmed from that choice, but a federal court’s recent ruling freezing a program offering legal protections to young immigrants still felt like a blow.

“The fear of family separation is there,” she said Tuesday, a few days after U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program represented an illegal overreach of executive power.

While Ruiz, who is now studying to be an environmental engineer at San Antonio College, will still be protected by the program, her 21-year-old brother will not, since his application had not yet been processed when the ruling was handled down. Ruiz is worried her family will soon be torn apart. 

“They have our information because of our applications,” she said.

It’s stories like these that inspire faith groups to advocate for permanent immigration solutions. In the aftermath of the recent DACA ruling, religious organizations are calling on Congress to give up partisan fighting and take action to help people in need.

Faith Williams, associate director of government relations and advocacy for the National Council of Jewish Women, is among the religious leaders hoping that Congress’ upcoming budget reconciliation package will include a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients like Ruiz, as well as other immigrants whose futures are in flux.

The solution needs to be permanent, “not just more temporary stuff,” she said, pointing to surveys showing widespread support for immigrants among the American public.

Similarly, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, called on policymakers to find a bipartisan way to improve the immigration system.

The government is tackling “21st century immigration challenges with 20th century immigration laws. That won’t do. … We’re better than that as a country,” he said. “We have (the) capacity to create moral laws.”

Welcoming the stranger

Like many faith leaders involved in immigration reform, Williams cited her religion to explain why she feels called to help immigrants.

“The Torah commands us to welcome the stranger and it commands us to welcome the stranger more than any other commandment,” she said.

Williams added, “As a people … I do think our story is knowing what it’s like to be a refugee, knowing what it’s like to be an immigrant. Religious beliefs aside, this is who we are as a people.”  

Tess Clarke, director of We Welcome Refugees, pointed to the same biblical exhortation to care for the stranger when asked to talk about what drives her work.

“I’m a follower of Jesus who believes that everyone should have an opportunity to flourish and the Bible is very clear that welcoming the stranger and extending hospitality is a mandate of our faith,” said Clarke, who is calling on Congress to protect young immigrants, or “Dreamers,” by creating a pathway to citizenship. 

The Rev. Salguero emphasized that faith leaders from across the religious and political spectrum support immigration reform, noting that, “Ours is a moral stance. It’s not a partisan stance. ... This isn’t about political parties. This is about people’s lives.”

‘All of this feels cruel’

For young people who have already been protected by the DACA program, the latest ruling is a frightening reminder of the precarious nature of their lives in the U.S. They described living in limbo for years, their prayers unanswered, noting that the experience has had a profound impact on their faith.

Aline Mello, 32, was just a 7-year-old when her father came home from work one day and told her mother, sister and her that he’d quit his job and that the family was leaving Brazil for the U.S.

After they arrived in America, the family overstayed their tourist visas. Mello, who is now 32, recalled being warned as a child not to call 911 so that no one would discover their secret. “I was told not to call the police because they might take us away,” she said.

Around that time, Mello began to understand the reality of life in America without legal status. She began to pray that something would change by the time she turned 18. 

Things did change — only they changed for the worse. 

Mello had excelled in high school, getting good grades in honors and Advanced Placement classes. But, around the time she graduated, the state of Georgia decided that undocumented students were not eligible to pay in-state college tuition, nor were they were allowed to attend the state’s top universities. Mello’s dreams for her future evaporated overnight. 

She scraped together the money to attend a local community college by getting a merit scholarship and cleaning houses with her mom. “It felt really embarrassing to tell my friends that I was going to go to a community college when they were going to places I couldn’t even apply to,” she said. 

For many years, Mello, who is an evangelical Christian, hung onto her faith and the belief that there was a purpose for her life.

But, eventually, “I came to the point (of wondering) whether God is not as powerful as we think or he’s not as good as we think and I was stuck there for a while. Now I’m leaning towards agnosticism,” she said, adding that her younger self would have been shocked by that change.

Although Mello had received DACA protections before last week’s ruling, she was still horrified by the news.

“All of this feels cruel,” she said.

The Rev. Salguero shared similar thoughts, arguing that Congress needs to do everything they can to give people like Mello hope for a bright future.

“I’m a pastor, I’m not a politician, and what I’m looking for in the words of Saint Augustine is the highest good,” he said. “What is the highest good? What is the most moral and humane legislation we can pass? I’m sure that 60 senators can get to yes on this.”