Julia Thorne, manager for immigration issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an immigration attorney, spoke during the July 13 morning plenary session at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women.
Gathering participants have shared various opinions on immigration, Thorne said.
“I’m hearing that immigration issues are complex and people don’t have enough information to know what to think,” she said. “But Presbyterian women have always had to grapple with tough issues — especially issues about the laws in our country.
“In 1850, with the passage of the Slave Fugitive Act, Presbyterian women had to decide to either obey the law and return a runaway slave to her master or break the law and help her to freedom,” Thorne said. “In 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Presbyterian women pondered whether it was right or wrong to allow Europeans to immigrate in huge numbers but forbid the Chinese to enter.
“Today we can think back on those decisions and see clearly what was right or wrong, but Presbyterian women might have felt confused at the time, hearing both sides but not having all the facts,” Thorne said. “We can’t afford to wait for history to tell us if our thoughts and actions on immigration are right or wrong.”
In sharing the complexities of immigration and Christian response, Thorne recounted several cases of Presbyterian immigrants who came to the United States at great personal expense and sacrifice.
Ricardo, a farm worker, paid $3,000 to travel to New Orleans, where he was promised disaster relief work. He ended up picking tomatoes in Florida — 45 cents for 32 pounds — after being sold by his employer for $1,000.
Reya and her daughter Cecilia once sold food for a living in Mexico. When Reya was forced to pay extortion money to prevent the kidnapping of Cecilia, she decided to immigrate. Both mother and daughter took birth control pills because they were told they probably would be raped along the way. They paid $3,500 to be transported across the border, but instead had to walk through sewers. But they made it, and Reya began working in a hotel.
Her life was turned upside down again when she was arrested for jaywalking. Sent from one deplorable prison to another, she witnessed abuse by jailers. Her heart was lifted, though, when through the prison window she could see church people protesting on behalf of the prisoners.
Joseph’s father came to the United States legally with Joseph when he was three years old. Joseph graduated from high school with honors, but he is prohibited from graduation from college because he is undocumented.
Thorne shared these stories, challenging Presbyterian women to act on behalf of these Presbyterian sisters and brothers.
“Only we can change their situations for them. If not now, when?” she asked. “How we treat all people whom God loves should never be up for debate. Now is the time.”
To read more stories from the 2009 Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women, visit the Gathering Web site.