As the fight for just and humane immigration reform begins with a mark-up in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, I know there will be much political analysis about what will help legislation pass and what could defeat it. I feel strangely and cautiously optimistic for the first time in years - really ever. But I also see real potential for defeat. Even more, I see real potential for something even worse than no legislation passing: legislation that passes but does not bring about genuine and much-needed reform and leaves us stuck with an unworkable system that excludes many and further militarizes the border and increases enforcement which will make defense contractors and private prisons even richer. We are in danger of the illusion of reform without the substance of reform and that is the worst possible scenario.
I hate to sound the voice of gloom, but I can tell you that the sounds associated with such illusion of reform with no substance will not come with a cacophony of anger from one side of the political aisle, but rather, failure will be associated with the sound of silence. It will be the silence of liberals. Sadly, liberals have grown far too dependent on the sounds of others and far too accommodating for the larger cause of supposedly "getting something done" and we have, all too often when it comes to issues such as immigration, gone silent and lost our greatest strength: passionate devotion to our values.
I have seen an alarming vision of this with the recent entrance of religious conservatives into the struggle for immigration reform. Religious conservatives becoming engaged in humanitarian issues such as immigration has been, in my mind, something of a mixed blessing. Religious conservatives have brought greater media attention because of the media's infatuation with them. In addition, supposedly liberal funders have given incredibly large sums of money to groups that, out of nowhere, have made organizing religious conservatives one of their priorities. Watching DC advocacy groups chase after funding dollars should be a reality show.
But one of the many downsides to the entrance of religious conservatives is that all too often I have heard some liberals speak of their entrance into the struggle as if it means that the rest of the faith community can take a vacation. Now, let me be specific. There are many, many progressive people of faith who are not waiting for others to make genuine reform happen. I know many of them personally and they are amazing. I know United Methodists - many of them moderate to liberal - who have engaged in over 1050 public witness in support of just and humane immigration reform during just the past four years. Yet, I also know far too many - many of them occupying titles and positions of influence. But they are passive. To be blunt, they are lazy.
I might make some angry for saying this, and I again want to stress that this characterization does not apply to all liberals by any stretch of the imagination. But too many liberals have become lazy. Lazy liberals rely far too easily on tired, worn out ,ineffective church structures that no longer work, if they ever did. Lazy liberals have ignored the work of individual conversations and recruiting new folks to build teams with and have instead depended on email lists and church statements and worn out Bible studies. Lazy liberals have accepted the media's almost complete marginalization of liberal voices and have excitedly pointed to the emergence of religious conservative voices, ignoring the deep divides in terms of values between the two sides. Yep, too many of us are lazy.
And our laziness comes not only at the peril at our voices being marginalized. More importantly, our laziness and our dependence on religious conservatives imperils the genuine reform needed to truly defend and support the basic civil and human rights of our immigrant sisters and brothers. I believe that an energized liberal faith community is the only thing that can take the current Senate bill offered by the Gang of 8, which offers the illusion of reform, and, through much-needed amendments, see that it is perfected to include the substance of reform.
The Senate bill as it is currently introduced fully embraces the principles put forward by religious conservatives and ignores, not surprisingly, the values that liberal faith groups have been putting forward for years. Religious conservative principles include:
- Guaranteed secure borders. Now, I have written elsewhere on the theological and missiological nonsense of Christians advocating for a guarantee of secure borders, but for purposes here, the crafters of the Senate bill clearly saw this principle as political cover for an immigration bill that is far, far more about border security than it is about immigrants. On top of the 18 billion having been spent in fiscal year 2012 alone, the Senate bill adds another 4.5 billion for good measure. At a time when the sequester cuts have taken over 600,000 recipients off of WIC, the Senate's crass expenditures will go straight into the coffers of defense contractors and private prisons as they expand hideous programs like Operation Streamline. (Hey lazy liberals, still asleep?)
- Priority on unifying the immediate family only. The Senate bill takes the cue that stripping important family categories that have been in place for close to 50 years such as siblings and bringing over adult children will not be met with any stiff resistance. (Maybe starting to stir a little bit lazy liberals?)
- Fairness to tax payers. Now, I have no earthly idea how this principle has anything to do with the immigration debate, but it is there for religious conservatives nonetheless. This causes even more disbelief when faced with the reality that immigrants do pay taxes! Still, it is there and it seems to have been given credence by framers of the Senate bill when they created a point system that favors high tech employees and corporations over and against family reunification and low-skilled workers. While big corporations will be quite happy with this, many of the immigrants who make up our congregations will not and we have to ask ourselves who it is that needs the voice of the faith community more in this fight for genuine reform. (OK lazy liberals, now I am starting to see a little movement)
- Lastly, while not a principle that is listed by religious conservatives, discriminating against the GLBT community and not allowing family members of same-sex families to reunify has been, in meetings I have attended, THE primary focus of concern for religious conservatives when it comes to reform. Though President Obama favors this provision and though liberals see this provision as an obvious human rights issue, the Senate bill favors the sentiments of religious conservatives and has decided they want certain immigrants to come to our country: straight ones. This, more than any other principle embraced by religious conservatives, illustrates the heretical belief that we are supposed to distinguish between deserving and undeserving people who are vulnerable. (Yeah, now I see you sitting up! I hope you had a nice nap my lazy liberal friends, but a lot has happened during your slumber and none of it good)
With the Senate bill embracing the principles of religious conservatives, I believe we will have immigration reform, if passed, that is not workable and is not centered on immigrants.
Just as we reject the illusion of reform without the substance of reform, we too must reject the notion of religious unity without actual unity. For years now, everyone has been telling liberals like me to not expose the differences among faith groups - to instead emphasize unity, even when so many of us recognize that there is no unity when it comes to what we want to see in immigration reform. Yes, we all acknowledge the system is broken - only the most inane voices do not acknowledge that. But the unity that so many foolishly trumpet quickly falls apart from there. The truth is that there can never be unity when one group entirely ignores the other. Though I have been to hundreds of coalition meetings on immigration reform, I can honestly say I have never been to one with religious conservatives on this issue. That is stunning in and of itself.
Lazy liberals must wake up or we will end up watching a reform that, once there is even further negotiating and cattle-trading, will be so watered down that it is a sham. We either wake up, and wake up this week by making our voices heard in a big way to Senate Judiciary Committee members through our calls, or immigrants will be the worse for our lack of effort.
Here are some aspects to the Senate bill that desperately need amending:
- Reduce the total wait time for immigrants to wait with a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status from 10 years to 6 years
- Give immigrants with RPI full access to health care and other important social services
- Extend the cut-off date for Registered Provisional Immigrant status to from December 31, 2011 to the date of enactment
- Don't exclude those with aggravated felony offenses or with three misdemeanors from attaining the RPI status. We especially want to eliminate the term "aggravated felony" which could include some misdemeanor offenses or minor drug offenses. Moreover, we should exempt individuals who are in states with 1070-type laws or where there has been consistent practices of racial profiling.
- Include same-sex family members who are separated in the effort to reunify families
- Lower the effectiveness rate for securing the border from its current level of 90% and remove the pathway to citizenship from all border security triggers
- Reinstate the categories of siblings and adult children and eliminate the point system
- Base any further expenditures on border security on reinstating the sequester cuts to the most vulnerable. As soon as every person cut from access to such programs as WIC and Head Start is fully reinstated, then money can be appropriated for more border security madness.
These simple changes would make the Senate bill actually workable and humane.
But let me be clear, you calling all these Senators by yourself is not going to do it. We have got to build a movement. For folks (like myself) who look back at the 60s longingly at the movement-building and organizing that took place, we have not, by and large, not done a powerful job of mimicking them. Knowing that there is no single bill that will fully defend and support the rights of immigrants, here are a couple of things we must do to have long-term impact for years to come:
- We must first enter into incarnational relationships with immigrants - advocating without immersed relationships among immigrant communities is the way to follow the current path blazed by DC advocacy groups who advocate for principles and not people
- We need to have one on one conversations with people in our congregations and invite them to join us in forming teams of folks, incarnated among immigrant communities
And to have an impact this week and in the weeks to come, here are a couple of things we can do right now:
- Make calls each day to the list of Senate Judiciary Members (list is below) relating the list of needed changes listed above
- Wake up our dead or dying institutional structures by doing more than sending emails - we need to call everyone on our justice lists and urge them to make calls as well!
- Find out who made calls and invite them to join with you in meeting with your Senator the last week in May for a Neighbor to Neighbor meeting, urging them to support immigration reform that supports these simple changes.
As I stated before, I know lots of progressive people of faith who are fully engaged and waiting for no one to step up for them. But I also far too many lazy liberals and it is time to jump on the bus so that we can go. We have been waiting around long enough. It is time for liberals to be bold and demand the changes that we know will make reform genuine and truly inclusive. And if they refuse to give in and assume that we will meekly step aside and allow the word reform to be hijacked by the political and economic status quo. Then it will be time for us to say no to any reform at all.
Lazy liberals, WAKE UP!!! The only ones who can bring about the reform that we need - that our immigrant sisters and brothers absolutely need and deserve - are us.