Arizona Presbyterians resist new immigration law

‘We need to act out of our faith and not out of fear’

June 28, 2010

LOUISVILLE

When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law in April, the state’s new immigration law was front page news. But for many Presbyterians who work on the Arizona/Mexico border, the law adds another complicated layer to the ministries that they’ve been involved in for years.

SB 1070, the broadest immigration law in the U.S. in decades, makes it a crime to not carry immigration documents. It also gives the police the power to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. The bill, which goes into effect July 28, has been widely criticized as an invitation to racial profiling of Hispanics.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is one critic of the law, with three top leaders speaking out against it in a letter to Congress. In the letter, they call for comprehensive immigration reform and identify “bigotry, trauma, and fear” as effects of SB 1070.  

The PC(USA) partners with many groups on the border, from Presbyterian Border Ministry to Young Adult Volunteers to the work of individual congregations.

A matter of faith

Although the law doesn’t go into effect until next month, its impact can already be seen in the increased fear and isolation in several communities, some Arizona Presbyterians said.

“It’s creating a lot of fear in our neighborhood,” said the Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.

Elsbeth Pollack, a Young Adult Volunteer based in Tucson, said fearful reactions to SB 1070 were immediate, noting that some parents stopped picking their children up from local schools because they were afraid to leave their homes.

“It’s hard when that part of the community feels they have to isolate themselves,” she said.

At Southside, the law has been noncontroversial — everyone is against it. Church members agree that the law is “terrible, a flat-out sin and racist,” Harrington said. The members believe that churches must serve as safe spaces, but SB 1070 makes transporting undocumented immigrants a misdemeanor.

 “We feel that SB 1070 really inhibits the practice of our faith,” Harrington said. “Giving people rides to church is what Christians have always done. It’s right up there with potlucks.”

Harrington said Southside is not going to ask people to show their immigration papers. The church is called to serve all people, no matter their immigration status

“That has nothing to do with their status in the eyes of God,” she said.

Working together

The faith-based perspective to SB 1070 seems clear, said the Rev. Mark Adams, a mission co-worker with Frontera de Cristo, a part of Presbyterian Border Ministry based in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz.

Scripture shows time and time again God’s concern for the stranger, and notions of migration have been part of the faith story since the beginning of time, Adams said.

“We need to act out of our faith and not out of fear,” he said.

Approaching immigration from a faith-based perspective is essential, but it’s also important for churches to work with other groups in the community, Adams continued. By joining Douglas for Just Immigration Reform, Frontera de Cristo has done just that.

Douglas for Just Immigration Reform, a group founded out of frustration after the signing of SB 1070, calls for repeal of SB 1070, respect for the dignity of all people, safe communities, trust between communities and law enforcement and positive bi-national relationships. The group has been active in the community, organizing rallies and attending city council meetings.

Members of the Douglas group represent a wide range of interests: law enforcement, education, social services and faith groups.

That variety is important, Adams said.

“As people of faith, we need to know about secular arguments but be guided by our faith,” he said.

Although opposition to the law comes from different perspectives, many Douglas residents are angry about a law they see as detrimental to their community.

While faith groups turn to theological arguments, some secular opponents cite a growing lack of trust between police and migrant communities and the inability to track crimes because people won’t be as willing to report them. The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police opposes SB 1070, saying it will take time away from other responsibilities.

The law will create a new class of criminals and clog up courts and jails, taking away resources needed to investigate violent crimes, Adams said, adding that Arizona already has a huge budget crisis, and now police will be asked to do more work than before.

“It’s basically creating criminals out of poor brown people,” he said.

In addition, SB 1070 does nothing to address the root causes of immigration. Instead, it makes scapegoats out of the poor, Adams said.

The argument that borders must be secured before any kind of reform can happen is a fallacy, Adams said. Although the number of border patrol agents has increased from 5,000 to 20,000 since 1996, the number of undocumented people has gone up from 3 million to 12 million in that same time period.

“The irony of our policy is that we’ve done a better job at keeping people in the United States than out of the United States,” he said. “We as a nation have created laws that are becoming more and more anti-gospel, and we have become less welcoming, especially to the poor.”

Taking action

Pollack, one of the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteers in Tucson, divides her time among several ministries, including Borderlinks, an organization that educates people about the border issues of immigration, community formation, economic development and social justice. She helps host delegations of college students, seminarians and other groups that are interested in learning about such topics.

Although SB 1070 has put Arizona and immigration issues in the national spotlight, Borderlinks has been working on them for years.

“For better or worse, now people know a lot more about the laws and immigration in Arizona,” Pollack said.

And with that recent interest has come some action. Students at the University of Arizona recently held an on-campus protest of SB 1070, advocating for the safety of students, faculty and staff. A student delegation from the University of Michigan that Pollack was hosting at the time joined the protest.

Seeing the students mobilize and make such connections was wonderful, Pollack said, adding that she hopes the Michigan students can take what they learned and apply it to situations at home.

With 10 other states looking at similar laws, it’s important for people outside of the U.S./Mexican border states to educate themselves on immigration issues, Pollack said.

Immigrant communities in every city and every state are under scrutiny, but their contributions to society are often ignored instead of acknowledged.

“We’re all brothers and sisters regardless of where we’re from or what country we were born in,” Pollack said.

Education about immigration and border issues must be followed by taking a stand, she said. Getting involved with immigrant communities, churches or humanitarian organizations is a good place to start. It’s also important to contact legislators about immigration legislation and reform.

“People don’t put enough power into calling and writing letters,” Pollack said.

When it comes to advocacy and taking a stand, Southside Presbyterian Church has a rich history. One of the founding churches of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, Southside housed Central American refugees who were fleeing violence.

“That tradition has continued throughout our ministry,” Harrington said.

Southside’s pastor during that time, the Rev. John Fife, was among several activists convicted in federal court of harboring illegal immigrants. When he was elected moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly in 1992, Fife frequently boasted that he was the only felon to have held that post.

The church now hosts a day labor center, which serves as a safe space for worker and employers to negotiate employment. It is also thinking about opening as a “safe place” during immigration raids.

Southside is also a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit challenging SB 1070, along with such groups as the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, the ACLU, the NAACP, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The lawsuit charges that SB 1070 “unconstitutional” and “is an impermissible encroachment into an area of exclusive federal authority. It also claims that “according to law enforcement officials in Arizona and elsewhere, SB 1070 will cause widespread racial profiling and will subject many persons of color — including countless U.S. citizens, and non-citizens who have federal permission to remain in the United States — to unlawful interrogations, searches, seizures and arrests.”

Southside is the only church listed as a plaintiff.

“(SB 1070) flat-out interferes with our First Amendment right to practice our faith as we feel the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do,” Harrington said.

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