By Jeanne Wonio
The United States remains divided on the issue of immigration, but most agree that the current system is broken. Approximately 12 million individuals are in this country illegally. About one-third entered the United States legally on student or work visas and overstayed their authorized visits. Many undocumented individuals are day laborers in search of work and live in communities across the country.
“Most of the undocumented people in the United States are here for economic reasons,” explains Father Rudy Juarez, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. “They want to contribute to the community by working and they want a safe place to raise their families. They are hardworking people, but they live in fear of getting deported. Anything we can do to relieve those fears and provide needed services will be helpful.”
One way that communities such as Madison, Wis., and Chicago have tried to foster hope is by declaring their cities sanctuary cities. Generally, sanctuary cities do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws. This is accomplished by not allowing police or federal employees to inquire about one’s immigration status. Sanctuary policies often instruct city employees not to notify the federal government of the presence of people who are in their communities illegally.
A formal sanctuary city has a policy that has been passed in the form of a resolution, ordinance or administrative action. An informal policy is one that does not exist on paper, but is carried out in practice.
Pastor Sam Massey of First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City recently approached Fr. Juarez about exploring the idea of their city becoming a sanctuary city.
Rev. Massey did so after attending a local meeting of the Consultation of Religious Communities (CRC) with First Presbyterian Church member and mission advocate, Nancy Ross. “Mennonite Pastor Karla Stoltzfaus presented a piece on the plight of unregistered immigrants in our area,” Rev. Massey said. “That gave me a pang of conscience so I asked the question, ‘Have we ever considered becoming a sanctuary city?’ From there the task force was created by the CRC, with Pastor Karla convening it.”
Fr. Juarez believes this resolution would help to create a friendly environment for undocumented people who are fearful of getting involved with their community because of reprisals from law enforcement communities. Rev. Stolzfaus said: “It is my conviction that welcoming the stranger will reduce crime and violence. People tend to act out or turn to drugs or crime out of desperation. Many feel powerless on multiple levels. They are separated from loved ones, they are limited in their ability to communicate and they feel resigned to accept unfair treatment because they fear deportation.”
Fr. Juarez adds: “They would also be more likely to call police to report a crime, if they knew they would not be deported.”
The task force is in the beginning stages, so Fr. Juarez does not think the resolution will be in place until fall or later. The resolution must be formulated and then go through the process of three public readings by the City Council before it is approved.
(Wonio is a volunteer in the diocese’s social action department.)