In the next few weeks, the immigration reform billed pass by the Senate Judiciary Committee last night will head to the Senate floor for a vote. Passage seems likely right now, but it’s by no means certain.
While the legislative debate further unfolds in Washington, NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, is embarking on a nationwide “Nuns on the Bus” tour to call attention to the work Catholic Sisters do to promote justice for immigrants, and to call on Senators and Representatives to support immigration reform that includes a roadmap to citizenship for aspiring Americans, protects immigrant workers and ensures family unity. Their timing couldn’t be better.
It all begins with a launch event in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty next week. From there, Nuns on the Bus will travel down the east coast to Florida, then head through Southwest border communities en route to California. Along the way, the Sister will meet with social service providers who work with immigrant communities, Congressional staffers, and thousands of people of faith who have been organizing and praying for commonsense immigration reform. The full schedule of the tour is here.
Last summer, the original Nuns on the Bus tour resonated strongly in communities across the Midwest. Hundreds of people flocked to tour stops to support the Sisters’ call for a federal budget that promotes social justice, protects the least among us, and requires the wealthiest to pay their fair share. The tour generated waves of media coverage and provided a counterpoint to the Republican Party’s immoral federal budget plan and “makers vs takers” economic rhetoric. It played a role in changing the debate at a critical time. This year, as Senators and Representatives debate potentially historic legislation that will have a profound impact on immigrant families and workers, our economy, and who we are as a nation, the Sisters will once again call us to honor our highest values and ideals.
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While scandals (real and imaginary) dominate the headlines, immigration reform is making real progress on Capitol Hill. Numerous political challenges remain, but the Senate Judiciary Committee dealt with one of the most explosive issues last week – border security. Committee members of both parties voted down a series of poison pill amendments on this topic. At the same time, a Heritage Foundation report intended to kill reform backfired when its methodological flaws and racist authors came under scrutiny. Republican Senators who are standing up to their party’s nativist and bigoted elements should be commended.
This week the Judiciary Committee is debating family visas, which is one of the faith community’s core priorities. The Gang of Eight bill doesn’t go far enough to keep immigrant families together, and religious leaders are prophetically pressuring lawmakers to improve family unity provisions in a number of ways. The fate of these amendments is uncertain, but given faith leaders’ vigorous commitment to family unity, optimism is well-founded.
While the Senate tackles substantive issues, House Republicans are engaged in useless political theatrics. Tomorrow they will vote to repeal Obamacare for the 37th time. This is not only a waste of time and energy, it’s a perfect illustration of why Congress gets so little done. Alleviating the inadequacies and inefficiencies of our healthcare system should summon the best efforts of both parties, not hollow symbolic gestures that serve only to stoke up base voters.
But in order to pass immigration reform, we’ll likely need the support of some Representatives who are participating in this political stunt. That’s quite a challenge, but the progress we’re seeing in the Senate is reason to believe that our pressure can make a difference in the House.
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When I started out as Faith in Public Life’s founding executive director, Bob Edgar was there to listen, to open doors and to provide sage advice. In a city filled with all too many careerists who rarely look beyond the next election or the next fundraising cycle, he had a rare combination of idealism, strategic thinking and collaborative spirit. I miss him already.
It’s quite easy to imagine what Bob would say about the display of selfishness and hypocrisy in Washington last week. When air traffic controllers were furloughed because of federal budget cuts mandated by the sequester, flight delays frustrated thousands of air travelers. This lasted less than a week before Members of Congress from both parties and President Obama took action to halt the inconvenience.
Children losing access to Head Start, seniors denied cancer treatment, and people facing furloughs and layoffs because of the sequester got no such aid. Congress and the White House showed that averting misguided, harmful spending cuts isn’t so hard when the political will is there. Unfortunately Washington is more responsive to privileged people’s complaints about a mild inconvenience than it is to the suffering of Americans who lack power and influence. While Republicans bear the lion’s share of responsibility for our destructive austerity policies, servility to special interests is bipartisan.
Bob understood this reality as well as anyone, and he made changing it his life’s work. Common Cause, the organization he founded, has worked for years to curb the outsized, destructive influence of money in politics. It’s a fight that can’t be won in a day, but one that’s absolutely necessary in order to bring about a day when our elected officials put the well-being of their constituents before the preferences of the powerful.
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During the dramatic manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers last week, pundits claimed that the tragic attack would make it harder for Congress to pass immigration reform. Commentators weren’t just begging the question or speculating – they were stating this judgment as fact.
But their conventional wisdom will be proven wrong. The momentum for reform is too strong to be derailed by political scare tactics or talk radio rants. Already, prominent leaders of both parties and leaders of the faith community are stating in no uncertain terms that there’s no excuse to delay the debate or inject terrorism rhetoric into it. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic bishops, forcefully addressed this in a press teleconference this week:
“Opponents of immigration … will seize on anything, and when you’ve got something as vivid and as recent as the tragedy in Boston it puts another arrow in their quiver,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters.
“To label a whole group of people – namely, the vast population of hard-working, reliable, virtuous immigrants – to label them, to demean them because of the vicious, tragic actions of two people is just ridiculous,” he said. “Illogical. Unfair. Unjust.”
Diverse Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition also reiterated their support for swift action on comprehensive reform in the wake of the tragedy in Boston. Statements released by the IIC are here.
Addressing the national security implications of our immigration system is important, but we need to take a practical approach. The Senate Gang of Eight bill is inconsistent in this area. On the one hand, the road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants includes background checks could help detect the very few dangerous criminals among the undocumented population. On the other hand, the bill’s unnecessary, harsh “border security” measures are more about an image of toughness than substantive problem-solving. It’s encouraging, though, that those who would exploit the tragedy in Boston to pull the debate onto more divisive and fearful ground aren’t succeeding.
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As several Boston Marathon bombing victims remain in critical condition, scores of others begin to recover, and numerous families grieve, we have no shortage of people for whom to pray. I also pray that we don’t succumb to a spirit of fear or vengeance as more information about this horrific act comes to light. Now is a time to heal and support one another.
Immigration debate begins
The release of the Senate Gang of Eight’s immigration reform proposal early today was momentous. There’s much to like about this bill. Foremost, it lays out a real road to citizenship for people who currently lack legal status. Nevertheless, the legislation also needs significant changes. The 13-year wait for undocumented people to become citizens is far too long, and family unity policies need major improvements.
Faith leaders are already at work not only to build political momentum, but also to remedy the bill’s shortcomings. Evangelical leaders are flooding Congressional offices with visits and calls today, and yesterday the PICO National Network spelled out specific improvements for Senators to make.
Looking ahead, I’m mindful of the lessons from another epic legislative debate that the faith community vigorously engaged – healthcare reform.
Two things stand out to me. One is the importance of keeping the debate moving. Republicans’ stalling tactics very nearly killed Obamacare. Opponents of immigration reform will clearly resort to the same strategy. Let’s recognize that calls to slow down are a ruse meant to defeat the bill.
Second, faith leaders’ close engagement on policy details matters a great deal. If not for our aggressive efforts, the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance subsidies for low- and middle-income families would have been grossly inadequate. We can make the same vital difference on family unity policies, among other issues.
No legislation is perfect at the outset of debate, nor is it perfect at the end. But we have a historic opportunity to pass a landmark law that reflects our values of opportunity, fairness and compassion. We can’t let it pass us by.
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