Photo by Arin DeGroff
Immigrants, aliens, strangers, refugees and foreigners. The Abrahamic holy books — the Christian Bible, the Hebrew Bible and the Quran — repeatedly identify these people as historically oppressed and vulnerable groups who believers should treat with compassion and respect.
Today, followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam advocate for immigration reform and aid immigrants across the United States. In the area surrounding Pepperdine, this takes many forms, including political advocacy, interfaith collaborations and providing practical assistance to the immigrant population.
“A distinctly Christian perspective needs to be informed by what the Bible has to say about the foreigner, the alien, the marginalized people in our societies,” Professor of Religion Dan Rodriguez said. “The Bible speaks a lot about the unholy trinity of the widows, orphans and foreigners. They’re mentioned together as kind of symbolic of marginalized people for many reasons — they were always vulnerable.”
The Abrahamic religions comprise a significant portion of the U.S. population. Christianity is the largest religion in the U.S., making up almost three quarters (70.6 percent) of the adult population, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Judaism is the second-largest religion after Christianity (1.9 percent) — not including those who declare themselves religiously unaffiliated — and Islam is the third largest (0.9 percent).
Among Hispanics, who make up the largest immigrant population in Ventura and LA Counties, there is a Christian majority. About 55 percent of the nation’s estimated 35.4 million Hispanic adults identify as Roman Catholic, about 22 percent are Protestant, and about 18 percent are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 article by Pew titled “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States.”
Many Christian leaders and churches urge immigration reform, believing current immigration laws have created moral, economic and political problems that have polarized the immigration issue into an imaginary choice between two extremes: amnesty or deportation. Coalitions such as the National Immigration Forum and the Evangelical Immigration Table advocate for a comprehensive legislative upheaval of federal immigration law and policy. Matthew Soerens, field director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, said leaders and churches collaborate with the federal government to find a bipartisan solution that establishes a path toward legal status with respect for human dignity, family, law, national borders and taxpayer dollars.
“The Bible has a lot to say about how God’s people are supposed to treat immigrants, and that doesn’t allow us to ignore them when they are vulnerable,” Soerens said. “Evangelical churches are growing in immigrant communities. Much, if not most, of their growth is coming from immigrants. It means it is a very personal issue, not just an abstract number of statistics, that there [are] 11.5 million undocumented immigrants or kids fleeing violence [in their home countries].”
Soerens said some of the most pressing problems immigrants face are cultural integration, learning English and understanding the immigration system. Soerens said most lawyers compare the complexity of immigration law to the tax code, so churches can offer more affordable legal services to aid immigrants. He said churches can also offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, provide academic support to youth, and care for the elderly and refugees, who tend to be particularly isolated among the immigrant population.
“God expects his people to show a level of compassion and hospitality in this conversation toward the outsider,” Rodriguez said. “A Christian is someone who sees people as God sees them.”
Rodriguez said Christians can actually identify with immigrants because they are also strangers in a strange land.
“I owe my ultimate allegiance to a king who is not of this world, and my hope is in the final deliverance by that king when he comes to take his people home,” Rodriguez said. “This is not home … Too many Christians in the U.S. do not separate their identity as Christians with their identity as U.S. Americans. To me, that’s very problematic. They blend them like threads in a pair of pants. They can’t separate them, and that’s unfortunate.”
In a movement called Sanctuary 2014, 24 churches from 12 cities around the country pledged to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Ventura County’s sanctuary was at the United Church of Christ (not a part of the Churches of Christ), a small 80-member church in Simi Valley, minister emeritus and church member Rev. Frank Johnson said.
“It was a very engaging kind of project because of the fact that this was a controversial action to take, and it was one in which we were acting in the name of justice, so we felt that we were called to do this,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the congregation decided together to bring in an undocumented woman from Oxnard who was in danger of being deported and separated from her family: three children, including a nursing infant, and a husband, all U.S. citizens.
“Since we made a public statement that our church would be a sanctuary church, although the government could have come and taken her away, they did not,” Johnson said. “They respected the sanctuary and in the meantime, her attorney was working to bring her case to court.”
While immigration is an important issue among Christians, individual churches in Southern California participate to varying degrees. Some church leaders said they make it a point to make sure everyone, including Spanish-speakers, feel welcome, while other churches offer specific ministries to immigrants, Spanish services and other resources to help immigrants integrate into their communities.
Rodriguez said few Southern California churches, Protestant or Catholic, are anti-immigrant, but that if they are, it’s probably because they have no immigrants in their congregation.
“If you’re marrying and burying them, you become more accustomed to seeing them as human beings,” Rodriguez said. “Overall, at least the churches I’m familiar with have a pretty positive stance … Everybody I know wants comprehensive immigration reform.”
However, some churches are more outspoken and active about it, Rodriguez said.
For example, the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Simi Valley offers classes in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate to teach people how to read and write and help them get their high school diploma, Hispanic Director Livia Perez said. Livia Perez said the parish has to be careful, however, as immigration is a “delicate issue,” and if the parish gives out incorrect advice or information, “They’ll blame the church.”
Still, Livia Perez said, the parish has a program called Helping Those in Need that helps pay for food and rent for low-income families, many of whom are immigrants, and provide letters of recommendation for jobs.
“We are here to help everybody,” Livia Perez said. “We are here to help the needy. It does not matter what race or what denomination.”
At the Santa Paula Church of Christ, Minister Robert Perez said his church doubled in size — from 60 to 120 people — within a year when he started offering services in Spanish at his predominantly White church about 10 years ago.
“They came flocking,” he said. “I feel like if I’m going to teach them and go into their world, I’m going to have to learn Spanish … It’s their comfort language. I preach in Spanish when they ask me to. People say, ‘They’re in America so they have to learn English,’ but we have to approach it as missionaries.”
Robert Perez said having a congregation of documented and undocumented immigrants can be challenging. He said they are “receptive, humble, good people,” but that it also makes the church “very transient,” since members are sometimes unexpectedly deported.
“As a church, our policy has been that if we know about their situation, we’re going to try to help them to get legalized here,” he said. “That’s our policy.”
Though a majority of Hispanic immigrants are Christian, both Jewish and Muslim leaders in Ventura and LA Counties said Judaism and Islam are deeply invested in the issue of immigration also — regardless of race or religion.
Rabbi Mark Diamond at the Academy for Jewish Religion connected the Jewish festival of Passover to the immigrant experience of yearning for rebirth and relief as well. Passover, or Pesah, celebrates freedom, deliverance and redemption. From the Exodus in the Torah to strife in Israel today, the issue of immigration is deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition, Diamond said.
“I think that translates to a strong, deeply held Jewish notion that we were strangers in a strange land,” Diamond said. “There’s a long-standing Jewish view in the Torah/Old Testament of not oppressing the stranger, widow and orphan. It is too easy to oppress people like that, and we must not. That’s been part of our tradition now for thousands of years. We ourselves have wandered from land to land.”
Diamond said Jews in general believe in immigration reform “because it is in our Jewish DNA.” However, he emphasized that people cannot just talk about it without also acting on it.
“Our faith traditions also require us to labor for social justice — to raise our voices as well as our hands,” he said, citing Leviticus 19:33-34 from the Torah: “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, for example, is an international refugee resettlement organization, funded by Jewish federations around the world, that advocates for immigration reform in the United States. HIAS’ motto, “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee,” is based on the mandate in the Hebrew Bible to welcome the stranger in a strange land, Diamond said.
More locally to Southern California, Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles also works to resettle refugees. While most of its recipients are Jewish, it offers its services to all, Diamond said. One of its programs is SOVA — meaning “eat and be satisfied” in Hebrew — which offers food and other resources to community members.
There are also professional and volunteer law firms doing pro bono work for immigrants, Diamond said, such as Bet Tzedek, a Jewish legal aid society for low-income families and undocumented immigrants of all nationalities and religions.
The Jewish Labor Committee, a national organization with an office in LA, works directly with farmworkers, and synagogues work and with other religious institutions to provide relief for immigrants, Diamond said.
For example, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue is deeply involved in the Malibu Community Labor Exchange, though Hispanic immigrants are generally not Jewish, Rabbi Judith HaLevy said. The labor exchange is a nonprofit that helps the unemployed find jobs and employers find laborers.
“We are a very serious supporter of the labor exchange,” HaLevy said. “It’s our outreach to the Hispanic population … You are commanded 31 times in the Torah to take care of the orphan, widow and stranger that lives with you.”
In collaboration with the Malibu United Methodist Church, the synagogue also hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner for people who are immigrants and/or homeless.
“It’s grown into a huge program,” HaLevy said. “We fed almost 600 last Thanksgiving.”
While he acknowledged every synagogue and individual can make a difference, Diamond said it is not enough.
Diamond said it is incoherent and counterproductive for the lives of immigrants to be left up to individual states instead of reforming immigration policy through unifying federal legislation.
“Our goal is to pass comprehensive immigration legislation that ensures family reunification, a full path to earned citizenship, employment visa reform and effective, humane border control that safeguards our national security,” Diamond said.
The issue of immigration is also deeply rooted in the Muslim faith, said Muslim Public Affairs Council Director of Policy and Programming Edina Lekovic. Lekovic cited the story of the first migration of Muslims:
“The first group of Muslims with the Prophet Muhammad were persecuted for about a decade [in Mecca] until they decided that they too needed to migrate, so they did and formed a new community, which marks the start of the Islamic calendar,” Lekovic said. “It’s really powerful to think about how this migration story is so central to Islamic teachings, and it says a lot about how we are taught to treat those who are immigrants, those who are refugees, even what the definition of ‘community’ is.”
Like the Christian Bible and Hebrew Bible, the Quran has several parables and teachings about the way Muslims should treat immigrants, and the issue of immigration hits home for many American Muslims, Lekovic said. With approximately 3 million Muslims in the United States — according to Pew’s 2012 article, “Religious Composition by Country, 2010-2050” — about two-thirds of them come from immigrant families, Lekovic said.
Like Hispanic immigrants, “Most [Muslim immigrants] came here for educational or economic aspirations,” Lekovic said. “The challenge today for Muslims, like for many other non-Latino communities, is that immigration is understood as a Latino issue.”
While immigration is a personal and religious priority for many Muslims, Lekovic said most mosques are small, volunteer-run and don’t have many funds. California has the largest Muslim community in the U.S., and they number at just 1 percent of the state’s population.
Islamic Center of Ventura County Director Taha Khan said the center only has about 200 people maximum, so unlike some bigger Islamic centers, they are unable to have specific programs directed toward helping immigrants. But he emphasized that Muslims welcome and aid everyone however they can.
“Islam has principles and laws [to help the vulnerable], regardless of what religion they are,” he said.
Many mosques are also becoming more prepared to refer congregants to lawyers, agencies and other assistance that may help them in the documentation and integration process, Lekovic said.
However, limited funds and smaller numbers don’t prevent Muslims from advocating for immigration reform, Lekovic said.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, for example, advocates for immigration reform under many of the same principles as organizations like the Evangelical Immigration Table and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lekovic said: compassion, humanity, keeping families together, religious morals, collaborating with other faiths and organizations, justice, equality, border security, and fairness.
“The system is broken, and it needs to be fixed,” Lekovic said.
Ultimately — according to Rodriguez, Soerens, Diamond and Lekovic — immigration reform will only be achieved through the cooperation of the federal government and the collaboration of all the American people regardless of their religious affiliations.
Follow Falon Opsahl on Twitter: @FalonOpsahl