The Rev. Richard Smith lobbies U.S. Senate for immigration reform

Posted on September 17, 2010

 Bay Area lobyist at the Hart Senate Office BuildingOver five hundred civic and religious leaders rallied this week for immigration reform at a church in Washington, D.C. At that event, organized by Reform Immigration for America , leaders from around the country prayed, Sojourner's Jim Wallis preached, and various immigrants told stories of how their families have been torn apart by our present immigration laws. The event was followed by a day-long series of “pray-ins” and lobby visits to senators and congressional representatives.

Big political news came when New Jersey's Senator Menendez announced that he would introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate in 2010, something the very people sitting in those pews had prayed and worked for for many years.

Before heading to that meeting as a religious representative of my own city of San Francisco, I had told a press conference at City Hall about a great teacher who once said that whoever welcomes the stranger welcomes Him. That was why I was making this trip, I said; It was all about making that Gospel welcome real in my own land where 1100 immigrant families are presently torn apart by deportations every single day. A few hours after that press conference I was on a crowded red-eye to D.C.  

In addition to San Francisco County Supervisor David Campos and several community activists, our delegation included two young Latinas whose families have been separated by deportation: 18-year old Yvette whose father's deportation two years ago forced her, her mother, and three younger siblings to move to a homeless shelter; and Bianca, 20-years old and the virtual mother, father, and older sister of her younger brother after both of their parents were deported 5 years ago.

Half-way through the meeting at the church, our delegation left to meet with five senior staff members of Speaker Nancy Pelosi who is also our congressional representative. By coincidence, we bumped into the speaker herself in the hallway outside her office. Surrounded by five suited people carrying laptops and leather folders, she was obviously rushing to another meeting. But Bianca fearlessly waved her down and gave her a stack of petitions to President Obama from students at San Francisco State University. Pelosi paused, listened to Bianca carefully, and graciously said she would see that the President received them. Then off she went, whisked away by her entourage.

The meeting with Pelosi's senior staff began minutes later. Seated around the large conference table directly opposite the two Latina women, some of them came to tears while listening to Yvette's and Bianca's stories. Supervisor Campos lamented the present crisis in his district now that a newly implemented federal program requires police to share with Immigration officials data even about people caught jaywalking or running a red light. The resulting spike in the number of San Francisco families separated by deportation has caused a profound distrust between residents and the police meant to protect them, he said. Campos asked for help in opting out of this destructive program.

Two things are clear from that conversation with Pelosi's staff: They are on our side in this complex and contentious issue; at the same time they are frustrated by the polarization that has blocked reform efforts in Congress. We thanked them and reminded them that this moral issue requires more than the usual political vote-counting, poll-watching strategies. We encouraged them to show the same determination on this issue that they showed on health-care and said we'd stand with them along the way. Then we headed to the office of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader.

Senator McConnell is leading the Republican opposition to immigration reform, calling for stronger border security while blocking efforts to enable undocumented residents to legalize their status. We did not expect a friendly reception. After some convincing, his receptionist begrudgingly listened to Bianca and Yvette tell their stories. Then McConnell's senior legal counsel burst in to say that unless we were from McConnell's state of Kentucky we would have to leave. We agreed to leave, but not until after praying for justice for our immigrant brothers and sisters, and, of course, for a change of heart in political leaders like Senator McConnell. On our way out we chanted "No more hatred, no more fear! Immigrants are welcome here!"

After a picnic lunch near the Capitol, and later a brief hallway conversation with Senator Boxer who assured us of her support, we made our way back to Dulles Airport for the flight home.

This morning I’m back at my kitchen table. My inbox is flooded with emails planning the next steps in the reform effort. At the end of this hectic 48-hour trip, I am grateful to be part of this holy work of welcoming the stranger, and determined to see it through. For the moment, as my Latino friends would say, "La lucha continua." The struggle continues...


The Rev. Richard Smith is a priest associate at St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco.