WASHINGTON – American flags were everywhere – flying in the air, worn as bandanas, held by children – as more than 200,000 people thronged the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sunday to rally for comprehensive immigration reform.
Posters reading “Obama Keep Your Promise,” “Protect Our Families,” “We Contribute to America,” and “We are Not Criminals! We are Hard Working Families” littered the landscape made up overwhelmingly of Hispanic demonstrators.
Protesters came to vent their frustration at the pace Washington was addressing immigration reform and to demand the government take up the issue in April.
“If not now, when? If not the Obama administration and a Congress with both houses full of Democrats, who?” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, at the rally to The Christian Post.
Rodriguez explained that the administration now has a Congress where the majority is of the Democrat party. But the November election is expected to shift that number to fewer Democrats in the House and Senate.
The fast-talking Pentecostal preacher said there is a level of disappointment within the Hispanic Christian community at the job President Obama is doing on the issue. Obama had promised that he would take up overhauling the immigration system within his first year.
“We do not doubt his motive, but we are disappointed that that promise that he made on the campaign trail that within his first year he’ll pass comprehensive immigration reform was broken,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who will meet with White House officials Monday to discuss immigration reform, warned that the Latino vote in regards to Obama is directly connected to whether the president helps pass immigration reform.
An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States.
Those who demand an overhaul of the immigration system want reform that includes creating a pathway for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship.
“How can we live off the hard work of the immigrant and not let them share in the blessings that we enjoy as a people,” posed the Rev. Jim Tolle of The Church on the Way in the Los Angeles area, in an interview.
Tolle is senior pastor of the 25,000-membered congregation. His church is a part of the National Association of Evangelicals.
The megachurch pastor explained that it took evangelicals a long time to join the campaign for immigration reform because the issue dealt with illegality, something that evangelicals are very uncomfortable with.
“Christians tend to always believe in law and order as a baseline. No one would disagree with that. No one is trying to foment anarchy, lawlessness or criminality,” Tolle said. “However, in taking that evangelical position of law in order I think we have made it overly rigid.
“We as Christians believe that it is by grace that we are saved. And yet we were wanting the immigrant to be perfect when in fact what the immigrant was facing in his or her homeland was poverty, lack of safety, lack of opportunity and abuse of different types,” he said. “The evangelical community took that and dismissed that and said, ‘Well, you broke the law.’”
But Tolle said the evangelical community is slowly but surely waking up to the fact that something is driving immigrants to the country.
“So the real compassion of evangelical Christians is starting to blossom,” he said.
Similarly, fellow pastor Rodriguez of the NHCLC said a big factor in getting non-Hispanic evangelicals on board is contextualizing the immigration story into a Christian framework.
“I think evangelicals relate to the question of, ‘When you wake up in the morning, do you see yourself as an American first or as a Christian first?” Rodriguez said. “Are you a born-again Christian? Are you a Bible-believing Christian? Then you support immigration reform.”
The sentiments of the Christian leaders were echoed by demonstrators Sunday.
Eric Amontoya, 20, a D.C. resident said the current immigration system is unfair and it penalizes people who are just trying to work hard.
“I’ve been hearing about it in the news that they (undocumented immigrants) have been deported in the middle of work, and I’m thinking that there is so much crime, there is a war going on and there are still people here being deported just for working and trying to make a living,” Amontoya said. “I’m thinking that’s not fair.”
The young protester said his family and friends, some of who are undocumented, have been adversely affected by the current immigration system. His friend’s father was unable to obtain a driver’s license because he does not have a social security number.
Another demonstrator, Elizabeth Oh, is part of a group of 500 Asian Americans from New York. Oh said many non-U.S. born Koreans in the United States cannot get scholarships to go to their college of choice and therefore have a lower chance of getting good jobs.
Oh shared that personally one of her closest cousins could not get financial aid and therefore could not attend the college of her choice. She and other Asian-American students at the rally want Congress to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act so that undocumented alien students who graduated U.S. high schools with good grades would have the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency and qualify for college scholarships.
Caribbean Americans were also represented at the rally. Bishop Orlando Findlay of Brooklyn-based Churches United to Save and Heal (CUSH) led nine buses carrying 450 Caribbean Christians to the nation’s capital to advocate for immigration reform.
“Even in the Caribbean community, so many of us are undocumented,” said Findlay, whose group consists of clergy members. “We saw the immigration fight as a Latino fight, so we had stayed on the sideline.”
But last year the group decided to join the fight and has organized multiple trips to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress.
“We realized that once there is victory, we’ll all have victory,” said Findlay, who shared that the community feels the pain from the immigration system when one of its undocumented members cannot go home to attend a relative’s funeral because of their legal status.
A high-profile delegation of religious leaders will meet with senior White House officials on Monday to push for a committed timeline for immigration reform to be moved forward in Congress. The delegation includes: the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; the Rev. Peg Chamberlain, president of National Council of Churches; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.