Panel: Immigration change will take activating mainstream Americans

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Poll after poll says the American public supports a comprehensive approach to fixing immigration problems, but leaders of efforts to pass such a federal law acknowledge that an opposite message is driving the debate.

With a comprehensive immigration bill likely off the table until after next year’s presidential election, advocates for immigrants said at an Aug. 3 teleconference that their strategy now has to become getting more of that majority of the public involved in fighting for what they say they believe and defusing the power that immigration “restrictionists” have gained.

One part of that is to get more religious leaders to take a stand, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We need to counter the voices of talk radio,” said Appleby. “Quite honestly, the churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, need to do a better job of educating people about the realities of immigration … to put a human face on the discussion.”

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of research and advocacy at the National Council of La Raza, said that, just as it took mainstream Americans speaking up to help bring about the civil rights laws of the 1960s, more of the public must become involved in supporting immigration reform.

“We have to make it more difficult for people to stand on the sidelines,” she said.

Munoz referred to a speech by Janet Murguia, La Raza’s president, at the council’s July annual conference, in which she described what’s happened to the immigration discussion as “hatred and bigotry. We thought we were having a debate on immigration policy. But it was really a debate about who decides what it means to be an American.”

Murguia said in the speech that in failing to move forward with a bill that dealt with immigration in a way that had the support of most of the country Congress “voted to cave in to bigotry. When the Senate voted to reject hope, it voted to embrace fear.”

She said a “vocal minority, pushed along by an angry mob, aided and abetted by well-known talk-radio shock jocks, made the United States Senate — the greatest deliberative body in the world — its pawn.”

At the Aug. 3 teleconference, Tom Snyder, political director of UNITE HERE, the acronym for an international union of garment, textile, food service and hospitality workers, said the “huge group in the middle” must have strong leadership to rally people to hold their political leaders accountable for changing current laws and policies. He said it has been easier for politicians to let the status quo remain than to work for a change.

“I would always rather run a campaign to say ‘no’ rather than to say ‘yes’ to changes,” Snyder said.

Appleby said at the teleconference that authority figures from all segments of society need to talk about the human justice issues in the current approach to immigration in the United States.

He described the current environment when it comes to immigration-related politics as toxic and “a feeding frenzy” that ignores the human beings whose lives, jobs and families are at stake.

The recent surge in employer raids that have drawn attention to families being split apart by deportations are helping draw attention to those justice concerns, said Munoz.

When 1,000 families have had parents separated from their children by workplace raids in recent months, Munoz said, “they’re shining a light on what it really means to have a hostile immigration policy.”

Unions such as UNITE HERE, civil rights organizations such as La Raza and churches are working to get immigrants to become citizens and get them out to vote, the panelists said.

They also said there is still a chance in this session of Congress to pass smaller immigration bills dealing with agriculture jobs and in-state tuition and a legalization path for college students who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Both bills — the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act, or AgJOBS, and the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act — have had bipartisan support for several years, but have not made it to final votes in Congress.

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