Immigration: An Opportunity for Hope and Transformation

Published: November 6, 2013

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A few weeks ago on October 5th, we had the opportunity to attend the Faith and Immigration Statewide Summit held in Sanford, North Carolina. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as well as the North Carolina Council of Churches hosted the summit. The main theme for the conference was on upcoming legislation for immigration reform.

The attendees were split equally between native English and native Spanish speakers. The keynote speaker, Mauricio Castro, directed his message to groups who have been working hard towards immigration reform, charging them to keep moving even though they felt tired. We were there out of a sense of curiosity but more importantly we were acutely aware of the disparities faced by Hispanic community, many of whom are earnestly trying to adapt to living in mainstream America. The disparities they experience lead to marginalization, and this is why the issue needs to be addressed within faith communities and its networks. After all, Jesus’s charge to love your neighbor as yourself brings to the forefront a question central to this conversation: who is our neighbor?

The reasons for some of the disparities were made clear throughout the small group breakout sections. The first one was titled Access to Education and Farmworker Youth, which was hosted by a grassroots network called Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF).  The primary goal of SAF is to provide education and resources to migrant student farmworkers as well as key resource people within communities to remove some of the barriers in which the primarily undocumented and migratory population face. The large legislative piece that bares much focus at this point pertains to tuition equality. SAF’s work towards attempting to provide undocumented residents of North Carolina with the opportunity to pay in-state tuition for higher education has become a primary focus. As it stands, undocumented residents are currently required to pay the higher bracketed out-of-state tuition and are not eligible for most forms of financial aid. To offset some of the tuition expenses, SAF provides internship programs and limited scholarships to qualified students.

The second breakout session was titled Immigration 101 and was led by Becky Moriello, an Immigration attorney based in Raleigh, NC. This more informal session involved fielding questions from audience participants who vetted concerns about the terms of the legal status and proper procedure in cases of arrest or deportation proceedings. This session was conducted in Spanish with parallel English interpretation, and highlighted people’s stories and the reality of living in communities where you fear losing family and friends through the deportation process.

One interesting aspect of this session left both of us scratching our heads: in order to obtain a work permit as an undocumented person one must provide proof of residency for ten plus years and have a parent or child who is a US citizen. As a result of this application process, the person would need to be arrested and put through deportation proceedings. In the end, the person may be granted a work permit and permission to stay. This is an insurmountable task with a multitude of red tape for individuals whose educational levels and/or English language proficiencies are low. The alternative offered to this was that legalization could be obtained through the petition process. Essentially, if an undocumented resident has lived in the United States for ten plus years with a parent or child who are U.S. citizens, the parent or child can petition for legal status. However, this process can take several years. Many session participants expressed their concerns about future steps given that the laws have remained stable for a number of years; with immigration reform moving forward, the future appears uncertain.

In our opinion, this summit was instrumental in bringing a voice and a face to the challenges encountered by Hispanic and other ethnic immigrants in this country. Concerns about exposure and expulsion are central to this audience, as many fear being separated from their family and community.  Fear and lack of awareness allow the community to remain uninformed and unaware of where to access information about safe resources and education. As faith leaders, we must be cognizant of one distinguishing fact: any community that feels the pains of marginalization and fear becomes one that needs support and access to information. Jesus’s charge to love your neighbor as yourself becomes challenged by a political and economic era of uncertainty and cultural dogma that views  immigrants as “freeloaders” and not as contributors to economic and social wellbeing. Our responsibility, then, charges us to move beyond fear of our immigrant neighbor and instead trust in the relational love of Christ. In this context we extend ourselves into a place of welcome and generosity that transcends all peoples.

– Angela Chavis and Helena Epstein

Angela is a first year student from Greensboro, NC. She has been a community engaged outreach worker for many years and plans to use those experiences to further her call in ministry.
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Helena is also first year student from Winston-Salem, NC. She is interested in understanding immigration issues within a broader context of faith relations as well as finding ways to promote dialogue throughout multicultural contexts, and attending to the fundamental humanity of all peoples.