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ECUMENICAL ADVOCACY DAYS – WASHINGTON, D.C.

March 19-22, 2010

A Place to Call Home – Immigrants, Refugees and Displaced Persons

Joetta Venemann, PBVM, and Julie Driscoll, SCN, were grateful to be part of a 600-member workshop on Immigration Reform this past weekend in Washington, D.C.  Julies writes:

“From the opening worship service with energizing songs from many nations through the entire conference, we were constantly reminded that there are many persons from around the country who are working daily for immigration reform and who will continue despite its challenges.

It was also refreshing that the homilies at the opening and concluding worship services were given with great energy and compassion by women, one from the United Methodist Church and one from the Disciples of Christ. The conference concluded with an address by Sister Helen Prejean, who integrated into her usual delightful and rousing address examples of the jailed and forgotten immigrants.

There were plenary sessions as well as different tracks for other input. Sister Joetta chose the Eco-Justice Track and I chose the Global Economic Justice Track.

Stories of the heart rending treatment of immigrants were our inspiration from beginning to end. Several related the horror of the Postville, Iowa, raid by ICE in May 2009, when, after helicopters circling the skies and police cars surrounding a meat packing plant, almost 400 men and women immigrants were shackled – wrists, waists and ankles- and led away causing their children to return from school to empty homes and to run to the nearest Catholic Church for refuge.

“We were called rats even as we were shackled and I thought, what will I do? Can I ever feed my family again?” one man moaned.

12-year-old Pedro has impressed many because of his ability to speak of this agony, “I am sad because they took my mother. My heart is scarred for the rest of my life.”

Forty-two women were forced to wear electronic GPS devices on their ankles in the days following the raid. At first they covered them in shame by pulling down the legs of their slacks. But one day they pulled up their slacks while at the church and boldly proclaimed. “We are not slaves. We came here to work.”

One man sobbed to the ICE agents, “God knows you’re doing this to feed your families. You’re paid to keep me from feeding mine.”

A BVM sister who was on the scene said she often received the question, “Do you support breaking the law?” “I do not support breaking the law,” she responded. “I support reviewing a law that is against the law of love.”

Speakers in many of our sessions addressed the large policy concerns that face individuals seeking immigration reform. One speaker who has spent 25 years on this issue said that recent polls of U.S. citizens fall in approximately these categories: 25% hard core say enforce the law, send these people back home; 25% say to change the law – these are not bad people under good law but good people under bad law; 50% – Are you for amnesty? No, but it isn’t realistic to deport 12 million people. It’s this last group we can address. “This is not just about fixing a broken system, but about fixing the American soul,” he said.

In the last 10 years, 100,000 children have been left without parents, with 400,000 being deported each year. To the question, “Why don’t they just get in line, there’s not line to get into.” U.S. has the biggest federal police force aimed at pulling families apart.

Migration is a global issue. Governments talk about free movement of goods and capital but not about free movement of people.

In policy sessions, there was great emphasis on the economic structures that keep this system in place. A Central American woman said that the reasons so many seek the U.S., even middle and upper class are: 1) External debt and all its conditions; 2) Unfair trade – pushed by CAFTA; 3) Lack of international aid. She asked that we realize that the World Bank and IMF are not only financial structures but political ones – little investment in people’s lives.

Another speaker focused on three aspects for reform: 1) Political trade agreements keep this policy in place as well as restrictive military enforcement policies. 2) He noted that ICE has two parts: enforcement has doubled in 20 years while services have dropped. 3) Managed migration – enhanced guest worker programs- keep immigration system built around work, not families. Use worker and then dispose of them. The question is not how we can alleviate poverty but how do we change an economic system that keeps managed migration?

Sunday was filled with excitement. It was the day of a massive immigration rally on the Washington mall (150,000-200,000), the healthcare vote and Sister Helen Prejean speaking at the end of our day. By noon, we stood on one side of the street where representatives were entering Congress for the healthcare vote. Tea Party members were on the opposite side. Pax Christi organized the rally and shared signs, “Catholics for Health Care Reform”. Nancy Pelosi and 25-30 Democrats passed right in front of us at one point and we gave them a great cheer. The day left us invigorated.“