WASHINGTON-When Congress stalled immigration reform in 2007, it was one of President Bush's major legislative defeats. Now some Christian leaders are calling on President Obama to take up the cause again, and soon.
"Our current immigration policy is killing people," said Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, pointing to the latest incident in Arizona where eight undocumented immigrants were killed in a car packed with 27 people that rolled over as they were trying to enter the country.
"The timing of this is just right," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, which is sponsoring a coalition called Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. "This issue is deeply rooted in the faith community; this is not a liberal issue or a left issue."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid surprised reporters last week by announcing that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, saying it is one of his priorities along with health care and energy. Obama had said during his campaign that the reform would be on his agenda for his first year in office. Wallis, who sits on the president's faith-based advisory council, said, "Things are moving at the White House." A meeting on immigration is scheduled for next week.
Obama should "bring down the walls of political expediency," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Getting such a significant and contentious piece of legislation through Congress this year is at the very least ambitious, due to the body's already full legislative docket: health care reform, an energy bill, and appropriations for 2010, all undertakings that will entail drawn-out political wrangling.
Congress aside, the Obama administration has already expanded a program created under President Bush to check the immigration status of anyone incarcerated in local jails-which the Department of Homeland Security has indicated could result in a tenfold increase in the number of deportations. One Latino American blog said Obama is showing an "enforcement first" attitude toward immigration, over human rights.
President Bush's reforms met opposition from Democrats and Republicans, who claimed he was giving amnesty to illegal immigrants. His proposal provided a way for these immigrants to attain citizenship, created a guest-worker program, but also beefed up border security.
Since Wallis acknowledged "the weeds of policy are not yet clear," the coalition's broad proposals focus on looking out for the "stranger among us." They mirror some elements of Bush's reform: providing avenues to citizenship and protections for immigrant workers. In addition, coalition members want the waiting time for reunifying families to be minimized and called for enforcement to be "consistent with humanitarian values." Finally the coalition pushed for reform to include an examination of the "root causes" of immigration.
"It's got to be a combination of the rule of law and compassion, justice," said Wallis.