Immigration Issue Crosses Religious Borders

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 02, 2005, issue of September 02, 2005.

Nearly 200 illegal immigrants have died in the deserts south of Tucson, Ariz., as they attempted to sneak across the border. In an effort to keep that figure from rising, volunteers from the Jewish community in Tucson have gone out into the desert to refill water barrels for immigrants crossing over the border from Mexico.

On Monday, in another step to address the situation, representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Tucson joined an interfaith delegation that traveled to the border just south of the city to meet with some of the illegal immigrants who have been caught in the deserts. At a government center on the Mexican side of the border, members of the interfaith delegation met five 15- and 16-year-olds who had been arrested and deported back to Mexico.

The humanitarian crisis caused by the migration through the deserts of the Southwest has attracted a national stage in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, the governors of Arizona and New Mexico declared a state of emergency in their states after a number of skirmishes on the border between illegal immigrants and Americans near the border. As a result of the ongoing conflicts on the border, many Jewish organizations and groups from other religious communities are planning to focus on immigration reform during the congressional session that is about to open.

“This needs to be changed this year,” said David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Elcott was the main force in organizing Monday’s mission to the border. “Everything is wrong with the current system. Our borders are unregulated, and the people trying to cross it are dying.”

The AJCommittee is among the Jewish groups that have signed on to a national interfaith resolution set to be released this week that calls for immigration reform. The resolution says that most illegal immigrants already in American should be allowed to stay.

At a time when interfaith cooperation has broken down on many domestic policy issues, immigration has provided a unique point on which Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups are finding common ground. Last Monday’s mission to Mexico brought together Jewish groups with the top elected official of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently drew the ire of Jewish groups after voting last summer to divest from some companies doing business with Israel.

Rick Ufford-Chase, the top elected official in the Presbyterian Church, took much of the heat for the divestment decision. But Ufford-Chase, who lives in Tucson, said the immigration work was one good thing to come out of the conflict: Ufford-Chase first met the AJCommittee’s Elcott during negotiations over divestment.

The other major organizations represented at last Monday’s mission were the National Council of Churches, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which for the past few years has been pushing heavily for new immigration legislation.

In the past year, four pieces of competing legislation have been introduced to provide comprehensive immigration reform. One of the two most seriously regarded measures is the one co-sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. The other is being co-sponsored by two Republicans in the House of Representatives, Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas.

The interfaith coalition has not explicitly backed one piece of legislation, but the Kennedy-McCain bill is discussed more positively in the Jewish community, because it expedites family reunions and provides an easier path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already in America. In contrast, the Kyl-Cornyn measure focuses more on punitive efforts to keep illegal immigrants out of the country.

On Tuesday, several Jewish communal leaders met with Rep. Jim Kolbe, the Arizona Republican who has introduced the House version of Kennedy and McCain’s legislation.

Observers said it is not entirely clear why there has been such a flurry of activity over immigration in recent months. A spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson says that in his sector arrests along the border have actually dropped in 2005 — down from 459,065 arrests at this time last year to 406,323 arrests this year. On the other hand, the number of deaths of illegal immigrants sneaking over the border in the Tucson area has risen 35% this year.

There seems to be broad-based agreement that the current national policy is neither protecting the borders sufficiently nor providing a proper avenue for immigrants who want to work in the United States.

This frustration has led to the creation of citizen groups such as the vigilante Minutemen, who have gone out into the desert to apprehend illegal immigrants and send them back to Mexico. At the same time, though, groups such as the Tucson-based No More Deaths, are operating in the desert, giving water and shelter to the immigrants, frequently with the help of volunteers sent by the Tucson’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Last week, members of the interfaith group visited one of the water barrels maintained to help the immigrants wandering through the desert. When the bus arrived at the barrel, they found it had been shot to pieces and rendered unusable since the last filling.

On the Mexican side of the border, Elcott was interviewed on Mexican television. He spoke about his grandfather who came to American at age 8 as an indentured servant, and his mother, who came as a refugee at 17.

“It’s our historical memory,” Elcott said, “that makes this a resonant issue for Jews.”

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