Durango faith groups study immigration

National speaker to deliver three speeches about human rights

Smyers Enlarge photo


Across America, people of all faiths and denominations are studying the illegal immigration issue and pushing for reform that treats all immigrants with decency and compassion. That holds true for Durango’s churches and congregations.

When the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango picked immigration as the topic it would study this year, members began a journey of learning about public policy, human-rights issues and the actions taken by other faith communities across the country.

They have partnered with the local Society of Friends to bring Jen Smyers, the associate for Immigration and Refugee Policy for Church World Service, to Durango on Sunday.

“This is an issue where there are a lot of strong opinions,” said Ross Worley, the incoming clerk (chairman) of the Quakers’ Peace and Social Concerns Committee. “Diverse opinions, uneducated opinions and ignorant opinions, too.”

Maureen Maliszewski, a Unitarian who is organizing Smyers’ presentations with Worley, said both congregations are small, so it made sense for them to do it together.

“It’s an important issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed in our community,” she said. “There are lots of groups doing little bits of service.”

Smyers, who is based in Washington, D.C., is driving around the West meeting with various groups.

“About 75 percent of the people I’ve talked to are people of faith,” she said in a phone interview from Rock Springs, Wyo. “It’s been a broad variety of denominations who believe we have a scriptural mandate to care for the immigrant.”

Worley agrees, adding that there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that he believes make that point.

“You shall not oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” he quoted from Exodus 22:21. “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this sums up the law and the Prophets,” from Matthew 7:12.

Smyers works with members from 36 denominations as well as Interfaith Immigration on humane treatment of immigrants.

“The majority of rational people in this country understand that our immigration policy is broken and needs fixing,” she said. “They may not agree on all the details, but we believe we are on the right side both morally and practically.”

Smyers and other faith-based organizations are working for change using the principles expressed in the Interfaith Statement in Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform from 2008. The statement runs two pages, with more than five pages of signatories that have signed on to support it, including 92 faith-based organizations that are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh.

“It makes family unity a priority,” Smyers said. “Some families have waited decades to reunite, and we think that’s inhumane.”

Other principles include creating pathways to legal status, making sure all workers’ rights are protected and dramatically increasing the number of low and unskilled worker visas. The law currently caps such visas at 5,000 workers each year. The final goals are to reform detention programs and make sure enforcement of immigration laws respects humanitarian values.

Many churches have outreach programs to immigrant families, Smyers said. They also have come together in emergency situations.

“In Idaho, after an employment raid, churches got together to provide blankets, food and shelter for kids who literally hadn’t been picked up after school,” she said.

Malizewski and Worley hope the presentations and workshops Sunday in Durango will teach community members about immigration issues and inspire them to act with compassion locally.

“We hope that what comes out of the public participation in this is an honest discussion where people listen to each other with a little more maturity than our government representatives,” Malizewski said,

Smyers agrees.

“Just saying no amnesty without offering any practical solutions, just being angry, doesn’t solve anything,” she said.