Immigration as a Justice Issue:
Rally at General Conference Call for Humane Policies
by Andrew J. Schleicher*
Fort Worth, TX, April 25, 2008 -- A call for justice and humane treatment of migrants was issued on the first full days of the 2008 legislating General Conference of The United Methodist Church, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.
A rally outside the Fort Worth convention center brought together church leaders, immigrants, natives peoples, supporters of fair immigration laws, and a large press contingent. Three hundred people were welcomed by a youth choir from First Tongan United Methodist Church in Waimanalo, Hawaii.
"We are a church of immigrants," said Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix, chair of the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration, which sponsored the rally. "We pray for those who suffer."
Eleven speakers commented briefly on the global and national issues that immigration raises today. "We are here to express not our views on a particular topic as much as our concern for the people, for immigrants to our country and to other countries," said Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida.
Migration Is a Justice and Theological Issue
"Migration is a justice issue," declared Bishop John Innis of Liberia. "Migration is a theological issue."
Speaker after speaker underscored those themes. They strongly linked the issues of immigration, civil rights, and human rights.
Fifteen bishops, five heads of church agencies, and the leaders of six ethnic/racial caucuses stood on a makeshift stage in solidarity with the speakers. While the context was global migration, emphasis was also placed on the current immigration debate in the United States and on proposed federal law widely considered unjust by religious groups.
Alvin Deer, a member of the Kiowa Nation, said he feels conflicted about immigration because of his experience. Native Americans were forced off their traditional lands. Yet he also recalled the hospitality of Native Americans toward newcomers. "The pilgrims couldn't have survived the first winter without the hospitality of the Native Americans in New England," Deer said.
Deer added, "If we shut off our borders, we are shutting off our own people." The Mohawk people are in both New York and Ontario, and other nations of native peoples cross the Arizona-Mexico border.
God Created All People of One Blood
The United Methodist Task Force on Immigration was authorized by the General Conference of 2000 and is composed of representatives of the denomination's general agencies and a range of United Methodist ethnic and racial organizations. Over the past year, the task force has developed two comprehensive resolutions scheduled to come before the 2008 General Conference, one dealing with global migration and the other with US immigration policy.
The Rev. Tyrone Gordon, senior pastor of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church in Dallas, said that God created all people of one blood. "In effect this nation [the US] is a nation of immigrants," Gordon said. "Some came on cruise ships; some came on immigrant ships; some came on slave ships. But we are all in the same boat now."
"As an immigrant community and as a people of faith, we will not be divided," said the Rev. Kelvin Sauls, a South African immigrant and staff member of the General Board of Discipleship. "The immigrant-rights struggle is part of the ongoing and unfinished agenda of the civil rights struggle."
Racism Reflected in Current Immigration Legislation
Indeed, racism is behind the attitudes of current immigration legislation, said Bishop Whitaker. The Rev. Mark Nakagawa, chair of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists and a pastor in Los Angeles, echoed this when he said, "I guess they are not worried about the northern border, just the south." He was referring to a wall being erected along the border with Mexico.
Kyunga Za Yim, president of the Women's Division, spoke about her background as a Korean American and of United Methodist Women's welcoming efforts. "I, too, am an American," she said, "even though my face is the face of a stranger." She said that Alma Mathews provided a home for immigrant women in New York City in 1890. Immigration continues today as a priority for women in the church.
Monalisa Tuitahi, an immigration attorney and leader of the Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists, called current immigration laws "hateful." She said she struggles with what to tell her clients when the law is against them.
Tears rose in the eyes of the Rev. David Martinez, pastor of El Buen Samaritino United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, as he read letters written by undocumented immigrants. Martinez himself is an immigrant from Guatemala. He spoke of the fact that people come to the United States looking for esperanza, or hope. The theme of the General Conference is "A Future with Hope."
One letter told of a person who came to the US as a boy, worked in the fields, and finished high school. While he worries about his post-high school life, he gives thanks to God for those obstacles he has overcome. Nevertheless, he is still undocumented: "And it haunts me wherever I go."
The Rev. Bill Medford, a staff member of the General Board of Church and Society, challenged rally-goers to reach for their cell phones and call members of the US Congress to oppose the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement, or SAVE Act, H.R. 4088, which would require strict enforcement of immigration laws considered unjust under the standards of United Methodism's social theology. There were people on hand to help callers identify their representatives.
"What are we waiting for?" said Bishop Carcaño in reference to a line recently spoken in the convention hall by young people addressing some 990 General Conference delegates. Callers were in turn encouraged to telephone someone else from their congregation, urging them to also contact members of Congress.
The rally is one of two public events dealing with immigration schedules in the early hours of the nine-day General Conference. An April 25 press conference is to focus on ways in which congregations in the US can serve the needs of immigrants.
* Freelance journalist Andrew J. Schleicher is on the General Conference communications team for the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Apr 25, 2008