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'Faithful' flock to City Hall, call for immigration reform

Talia Whyte | 10/8/2008, 4:45 a.m.
Bishop Filipe Teixeira of the Diocese of Saint Francis of Assisi speaks to those gathered at City Hall Plaza for last Wednesday’s immigration reform rally. Teixeira said he hopes actions like the Boston stop on the nationwide “Tour of the Faithful” will help bring immigration back to the front of the national debate. Teresa Tam

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The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, speaks at last week’s City Hall rally part of the “Tour of the Faithful” seeking sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy. (Teresa Tam photo)

Community and religious activists rallied at City Hall Plaza last Wednesday, calling for stronger immigration reform initiatives and hoping to shed more light on what organizers say is a “broken immigration system.”

The coordinators of the Boston rally, part of a nationwide “Tour of the Faithful” advocating sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy, also used the opportunity to promote a petition calling on politicians to push for a moratorium on raids to round up undocumented immigrants conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

“We are here because we want to bear witness for our immigrant neighbors,” said Peter Lowber, chair of the Arlington Street Church Sanctuario Task Force. “We want to end raids and support immigrant rights.”

Massachusetts became a focal point of the national immigration debate following the March 2007 ICE raid at the Michael Bianco Inc. factory in New Bedford, where 361 undocumented workers, mostly women, were arrested and separated from their children. Activists say this raid was just one example of the disrespect and disconnect between the growing immigrant community and law enforcement.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) was among the first churches to embrace immigration reform, participating in sanctuary movements during the 1980s and more recently supporting the end of immigrant raids and deportations.

“We sympathize with our immigrant friends,” said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA president. “We talk about family values these days, but [the UUA] supports immigrant families.”

Reforming immigration policy is not only a family values issue, but also an issue of supporting democracy, according to Patty Montes, director of Centro Presente, a statewide organization advocating for the Massachusetts Latin American immigrant community.

“We don’t have a real democracy in this country,” she said. “How can we talk about democracy if women and children are being raided? That is not freedom and democracy to me.”

William Leonard, the Socialist Workers Party’s candidate in the race to represent the Second Suffolk District in the state Senate, has called for the immediate legalization of all immigrants and has participated in marches opposing raids and deportations, most recently at this year’s May Day Rally and March.

Leonard was employed by Chelsea-based Kayem Foods when workers there tried to improve workplace conditions in an attempt to win recognition as a chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He said that the dismantling of union organizing by corporations will make the fight to secure and maintain rights for all workers, including the undocumented ones, even more difficult.

“The fight for immigrant rights is a life-and-death issue,” he said. “The bosses don’t want to rebuild our unions. Right now politicians want to give $700 billion to corporations, but what about the workers?”

Shuya Ohno, communications director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), immigrated to the United States from Japan as a child, and knows firsthand the fears that immigrant families face, not only in dealing with law enforcement, but also when it comes to integrating into a new culture.

He said actions like the ICE raid at Michael Bianco Inc., and the coverage of the immigration debate by some media outlets and political pundits, help create a hostile environment for today’s immigrants.

“Anti-immigrant raids are dividing our country,” Ohno said.

The signed petitions supporting a moratorium on raids will be sent to ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to Massachusetts Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry.

Supporters like Bishop Filipe Teixeira of the Diocese of Saint Francis of Assisi hope actions like the Tour of the Faithful will help bring this issue to the forefront during the November elections.

“Our leaders need to give us the means to be respected as human beings,” he said.