More than 500 people from communities throughout the Bay Area packed the pews of the Mission Dolores Basilica Thursday night for an interfaith service calling for immigration reform and looking to inspiration from the late President John F. Kennedy and the book of Isaiah.
Standing beneath the church’s celestial dome, Marisela Sookraj, a leader with the San Francisco Organizing Project, had a message for the nation’s political leaders: ”We, the people, want immigration reform.”
Clergy from Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations gathered on the altar to read passages from Kennedy’s 1958 book A Nation of Immigrants, which called for a reevaluation of U.S. immigration law.
Pastor Michael McBride quoted from a section of the book praising immigrants’ contributions to U. S. culture and the economy. “This has been the secret of America,” he continued, “a nation of people with fresh memories of old traditions who dared explore new frontiers.”
Bishop William Justice commended the crowd for its social justice work and said, “As clergy, it is our role to inspire that work — to lead with prophetic voices, to encourage the weary workers … and to cry with you at the pain we see in our communities,” he said.
Lulu Rodriguez, one of the event’s organizers, said Kennedy’s words were chosen because they remain inspiring more than 50 years after he wrote them. “We need a leader like him, with a strong voice that represents us all,” she said.
At least a dozen clergy from the Bay Area spoke to a crowd that included contingents from as far away as Sacramento as well as City Supervisors David Campos and David Chiu. Senator Dianne Feinstein was invited to the event but did not come, and her staff person who was supposed to attend canceled at the last minute.
More than a quarter of the nation’s 11.9 million undocumented immigrants live in California, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
During his presidential campaign, President Obama promised to make immigration reform a priority. But, many who favor the reforms are worried these efforts will be stonewalled in the increasingly partisan senate or shelved longer in favor of efforts to reform healthcare and right the economy.
The clergy also read in English, Tagalog and Spanish from the book of Isaiah: “They shall not build houses only for others to dwell in or plant only for others to eat … They shall not toil for nothing; they shall not raise their children in terror but be a people blessed by God.”
Next, Lorena Melgarejo, a community activist and Community Engagement Program Director at Mission Asset Fund, presented some research on the benefits that immigration reform would bring to the economy.
She began with the practical, citing economic statistics such as those from a study by the Center for American Progress that calculated immigration reform would have increased the U.S. gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over the last 10 years.
Then she moved to the emotional, talking about the effects on families of deportation and long wait times for visas. She cited a 2009 University of Maryland study that said 80 percent of Latino immigrant children in U.S. schools had been separated from their parents at some time because of immigration issues.
She invoked the highly quotable words of the Orlando, Florida-based Bishop Thomas Wenski who, speaking of undocumented immigrants, said “They are not breaking the law. The law is breaking them.”
Later, 17-year old Ilse Daniela Rueda, an undocumented student who arrived here when she was five, took the pulpit. Her goal is to attend UC Berkeley and become a lawyer. “I have a dream to go to college and fulfill my mother’s American dream,” she said.
But without a social security number, Rueda, a student leader who is taking AP classes in both Spanish and English literature, isn’t eligible for most of the scholarships for which she’d otherwise be a good candidate. And even if she manages to fund her law degree, she won’t be allowed to work.
“Once I get out of college, then what? Who will hire me? I won’t be a citizen,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
After the event, María Filares paused before heading back to her home in Oakland. Filares is a U.S. resident, but her husband is undocumented even though he has lived here for more than 20 years. Keeping one eye on her young daughter who was playing on the basilica’s stairs, Filares said her husband works hard and obeys the laws. Still, she worries that he may just disappear into immigration detention one day.
“It’s sad,” said Filares. “He would be a good citizen.”