July 16, 2014

Finding Hope in the Current Immigration Debate

Protestors rally outside the Multnomah Couny sheriff's office. Signs refer to the coordination between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement encouraged under Secure Communities. This coordination was recently limited by the federal district court of Oregon. Photo: Peter Shaw

The current immigration debate can appear a little short on hope, being characterized by partisan paralysis in Congress, a presidential effort to expand the government’s ability to deport children, and the loud shouts of those hoping to benefit from open trade while limiting the movement of people. However, activists of faith in Portland, Ore. are making a positive difference in their communities. The impact can be felt nationally, so if you’re looking for a little hope, Portland is a good place to start.

In April, immigrant advocates claimed a significant win when the federal district court of Oregon ruled in Miranda-Olivares vs. Clackamas Country that local law enforcement is responsible for protecting the constitutional rights of those they’ve detained, even if federal agencies make requests that infringe upon those rights. That means that sheriff and police departments have clearance to push back against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which, under the Secure Communities program, can ask that individuals arrested or detained locally be held while ICE investigates their immigration status. These requests, commonly known as ICE holds or detainers, are quieter and less overtly disruptive than workplace raids. However, they violate the constitutional rights of those detained by keeping them in jail even if charges have been cleared or bail posted.

With this ruling, local jurisdictions across Oregon and around the country are increasingly refusing to honor ICE’s requests. More than 50 jurisdictions in Oregon, Washington, Kansas, California, and Pennsylvania have changed their policies relating to ICE holds since the ruling was issued in April. Activists of faith helped lay the groundwork for these changes by working as individuals, congregations, and through coalitions like Portland’s ACT Network. They met with county commissioners and sheriffs, spoke up in community meetings, and rallied and protested, sometimes at risk of arrest.

Marco Mejia, Jobs with Justice, speaks to a crowd at a Father's Day vigil in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Portland, Ore. Photo: Courtesy Erika Iverson/CWS

CWS supports these efforts through the work of the Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator for immigrants’ rights. “Noel in his position has a connection to local work,” says Marco Mejia, a member of Ainsworth United Church of Christ and an organizer for Jobs with Justice. “This is so important. So often national organizations on the East Coast and D.C. are not very connected, but in order to build a national movement, we need to be connected. Noel has been good at connecting us to the national movement in a way that isn’t imposing; it’s helpful.”

Sustaining advocates through years of struggle is an overriding commitment to and an inclusive understanding of their community. “We are a part of this community,” says Mejia. “What happens to the undocumented community happens to the whole community.”

The Rev. Lynne Smouse López of Ainsworth UCC agrees. “Jesus teaches that our neighbor is whoever shows up, whoever is in need.” Answering this call to welcome means being present and speaking out.

“I wouldn’t belong to this church, if they didn’t reach out to the community,” says Kaye Exo, a member of Bridgeport UCC. “One of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done is attend deportation hearings and immigration rallies. To stand in line with the sisters of the person at risk of deportation and have them say, ‘Welcome. I’m glad you’re here,’ that’s personal; that’s a connection to the community.”

While activists of faith recognize the recent court decision as a win, they also understand that the struggle for justice is not over. “This ruling gives the basis to continue working. This is a window. We need to keep working to stop arrests due to racial profiling,” says Mejia. “The ICE holds are stopping, but Secure Communities continues.”

Similarly, the Rev. Smouse López says, “This is an important issue, and it’s growing. My fear is that this will get minimized. These issues are racially and economically driven, and that hasn’t changed.”

In order to keep the focus on building more inclusive and welcoming communities by changing how immigration is practiced, advocates offer tangible advice to faith communities considering their role in the movement.  “Congregations need to hear stories from undocumented immigrants and those who have gone down this road,” says the Rev. Smouse López. “Reflect on the scriptures. Hear the stories. Get to know people. That’s the real way to break down the barriers.”

Exo says that her background in social work informs her community engagement strategy. “Make it doable. Send a post card. Stand at a rally. Hold hands with a grandmother. Church people know how to do that. They just need some encouragement sometimes.”