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Faith leaders regroup after Trump administration's latest immigration action

POSTED: September 7, 2017 9:11 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Nidia Romero speaks at a gathering of DACA supporters at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. President Donald Trump is dismantling DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the government program protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. Romero came to America when she was 4-years-old through the DACA program.

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Religious leaders are focused on finding long-term immigration solutions after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that a five-year-old program protecting immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors will be phased out over the next six months.

Many people of faith, including members of President Trump's evangelical advisory board, had called for legal protections for young, illegal immigrants to remain in place. But rather than spending the next few months dwelling on anger or sadness, religious leaders say they'll increase their outreach to Congress and to the illegal immigrants in their communities.

"Reactions range from disappointment to anger to sadness at the president's decision, but almost everyone agrees that we want Congress to act," said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, an international Christian organization that provides outreach to illegal immigrants.

"I'm not just for deferred action … but permanent residency or citizenship," tweeted Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board, as part of his call for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Religious communities have long played a major role in debates over illegal immigration. Clergy members help craft legislation and faith-based social service organizations provide legal advice and financial support to immigrant families.

Religious reactions

Around two-thirds of U.S. adults, including a majority of Christians, support the legal protections that were made possible through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program. Created with a June 2012 executive order, it enabled around 800,000 illegal immigrants to receive two-year, renewable work permits if they had no criminal record.

"Most Catholics (70 percent), nonwhite Protestants (66 percent) and white mainline Protestants (62 percent) support allowing immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to gain legal resident status," PRRI reported in 2015. "White evangelical Protestants show the lowest support, although a majority (57 percent) favor such a policy."

However, few people saw the DACA program as a long-term solution to illegal immigration, and its been controversial since its inception, Soerens said.

"Everyone agrees that DACA was not the ideal way to solve this problem," he said.

For people of faith in favor of broad immigration reform, DACA didn't go far enough. People brought into the U.S. as children had access to work permits but no path to legal citizenship.

Other religious leaders, while compassionate toward the young immigrants in question, thought President Obama had overstepped his authority with the order. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said in a statement that he understood why the Trump administration ended the program.

"I am disappointed that these protections are ending, and I've expressed that disappointment to the White House, directly. I also understand why they chose this course of action," he said, noting that DACA would likely have been overturned eventually in the court system.

"Now the president has provided Congress a six-month window to legislate a more permanent and legally defensible solution," added the Rev. Rodriguez, who prayed at Trump's inauguration ceremony.

In spite of looming legal challenges that threatened the future of the DACA program, many faith leaders were outraged by the Trump administration's decision. Dozens of statements urged lawmakers to protect the hundreds of thousands of lives affected by the news.

"Shame on this administration for their unrelenting attacks on the immigrant community," said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life, an interfaith group that brings religious voices to the public square.

"The cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible. It causes unnecessary fear for DACA youth and their families. These youth entered the U.S. as minors and often know America as their only home," read a statement from top leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This decision is unacceptable and does not reflect who we are as Americans."

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement: "By terminating DACA, even with a six-month delay or 'wind down,' President Trump is pandering to the demands of anti-immigrant extremists and harming our nation. … In practical terms, the 'delay' in implementing the termination is meaningless for the vast majority of Dreamers and will inevitably result in chaos in their lives."

Rabbi Rick Shapiro of Jacksonville, Florida, who also works with Faith in Public Life, emphasized the biblical call to serve people in need.

"The Jewish community has a long history of active engagement in the struggles of new immigrants. This involvement is grounded in the most oft-repeated injunction in the Bible — to treat the stranger humanely, with love, compassion and justice," he said in a statement.

Calling on Congress

The Trump administration's DACA announcement put the fate of people brought to the U.S. illegally as children in Congress' hands. Multiple bills that would protect those previously helped by DACA have already been proposed, but a bipartisan solution will still be difficult to come by, experts said.

"One bill addressing the issue that has received the most attention, introduced by Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, would grant permanent legal status to more than 1 million young people who arrived in the United States before they turned 18, passed security checks and met other criteria, including enrolling in college, joining the military or finding jobs," the Associated Press reported.

Many faith leaders have thrown their support behind this bill, referred to as the Dream Act. As they reacted to the Trump administration's Tuesday announcement, religious organizations urged people to call lawmakers to make a case for the proposed legislation.

"I think the most important thing for people to do is to reach out directly to their representatives and senators and let them know that they want them to find a long-term solution for people who were brought to this country as children," Soerens said.

The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish group dedicating to fighting hate in all forms, has launched a contact form on its website allowing users to easily voice their support for the Dream Act.

Additional responses include strengthening outreach programs to illegal immigrants and expanding lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. For example, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference will fly in faith leaders for a prayer meeting in October as part of its work to put "unrelenting pressure" on Congress over the next 60 days, the Rev. Rodriguez said.

People of faith who supported the DACA program need to transition quickly from regretting its end to finding the right way to replace it, Soerens said.

"I don't think it's of much value to spend too much time reflecting on what's happened. Let's look forward and put pressure on Congress," he said.

Similarly, Batar emphasized the need to stay focused on what could be lost if action isn't taken over the next six months.

"We need to stand up and tell our congressional leaders to do something permanent," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake."
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