By MICHAEL DOYLE
As in most election years, complex issues are often reduced to sound bites and inflammatory rhetoric. The goal is to motivate "base" voters increasing the heat of the debate without necessarily shedding much light.
Immigration policy is one issue that has been used this election cycle to fuel the political divide in our nation. Calls for aggressive anti-immigrant policies that break up families and place economic and emotional strain on vulnerable communities are proposed as a way to encourage "self-deportation." These proposals may prove to be an effective political strategy, but they ignore a more fundamental question about the moral dimensions of how our nation treats the millions of immigrants who come to our country seeking greater opportunity and freedom.
The very concept of self-deportation is in stark contrast to a more majestic view of the United States as a nation of immigrants that welcomes those seeking refuge. Ironically, politicians looking for votes have often invoked the Statue of Liberty as an iconic symbol standing for freedom, but ignore the fact that is dedicated to our nation's better nature in opening its arms to immigrants — "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Recognizing the importance of the moral dimensions surrounding the issue of immigration, 14 congregations in Champaign County joined together in celebrating October as Immigrant Justice Month. Drawing upon their faith's own moral teachings these congregations have engaged their members in exploring a more humane response to the plight of immigrants in our community and our country. They held interfaith liturgies, screened films and sponsored discussion groups. They have organized invited first- and second-generation immigrants to share their experiences and encouraged youth groups to explore how immigration status affects their classmates and their families.
For many of the world's religions, migration is at the heart of their own history — whether it is the story of Moses leading the Jews in search of the promised land; the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca when they were persecuted for their religious beliefs; or the stories and teachings of Jesus who became a refugee while still an infant, fleeing with his parents to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath.
But more important than the stories, the commitment to caring for and protecting immigrants is at the foundation of their belief system. The values and lessons these religions embrace and teach is one of tolerance, of caring for those who are vulnerable and offering comfort and a safe place to stay for the stranger or foreigner among us. Grounded in these values, people of faith are faced with reconciling the harsh treatment of immigrants by our government with the teachings that guide their heart.
In our nation's past, there is a long history of such moral conflicts providing the seeds for change. Whether it has been the issue of slavery, the rights of working people, unjust wars, child labor, or the civil rights movement, religious leaders have often been a leading voice in the call for change. It is time for our nation to enact comprehensive immigration reform that is humane and just. And the growing consensus among a broad cross section of communities of faith underscores the moral imperative for that change.
But each of us has a responsibility to lend our voice to the call for justice. At the YMCA, welcoming and engaging newcomers and immigrants has always been part of our work. In 1856, the nation's first-known English as a Second Language (ESL) class was held for German immigrants at the Cincinnati YMCA. YMCAs were often the focal point of programs for the children of immigrants as they settled in cities across the country.
The University YMCA is proud to work with local congregations who share our concern for the plight and progress of the immigrants in our community. We support the efforts of organizations such as the C-U Immigration Forum that are working to make our community an Immigrant Friendly Community. One that embraces and welcomes immigrants, celebrates their contributions to the richness of our community and seeks to share as well as learn from each other. With a world-class university that attracts students from countries around the world, we have a unique opportunity to develop a strategic communitywide plan that provides a vision of how we can create an Immigrant Friendly Community.
As is often the case, our religious leaders have taken the lead in rethinking how we can understand issues of social justice facing our community. It is time for other community institutions — businesses, schools, government, health care and social service providers and the university — to follow their lead.
Michael Doyle is executive director of the University YMCA and a member of the C-U Immigration Forum Steering Committee.