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The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is having a very good week. Rodriguez is the leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which says it represents 16 million born-again Hispanics. An ally of President Obama’s in 2008 (he said a prayer at Obama’s inauguration), Rodriguez kept his distance this time around, openly staking out his opposition to the president on same-sex marriage and abortion rights and offering a benediction at the Republican National Convention.
Mostly, though, he must have felt betrayed. Infuriated that Obama’s campaign-year vows to make immigration reform a policy priority were not kept, he co-wrote an editorial in this newspaper before Election Day. “Our president had two years with a Democratic majority and he made a promise that, for other reasons and other factors — and we’ll take him at his word — his promise was not able to be fulfilled,” he said. “He has failed the Hispanic community.”
Now, thanks to the overwhelming majority of Hispanics who helped to reelect Obama — 66 percent — the president is under new pressure to put immigration reform at the top of his to-do list, and Rodriguez is all too happy to turn up the heat. “This has to happen in 2013,” he says. “It can’t happen in 2014. President Obama promised us. It’s the right thing to do.”
Contributing to Rodriguez’s good mood is this political reality: If the Republicans want to stay relevant, they have to make themselves appealing to Hispanics. Ergo, they have to make an immigration deal. “The white, exclusive” GOP “is officially over,” Rodriguez says. When they woke up Wednesday morning, he said, laughing, Republicans heard their radios “playing mariachi music and the cha-cha-cha.”
In their speeches in the wee hours of Wednesday, Obama and Mitt Romney talked about Americans’ bedrock values, and it was fascinating to note their similar refrains. Romney talked about “honesty, charity, integrity and family.” Then Obama took the stage and talked about “love and charity and duty and patriotism.”
Religious leaders of all persuasions heard in these spiritually inflected phrases the possibility of forward movement and compromise on the seemingly intractable issue of immigration, which has been caricatured over the past five years as amnesty vs. deportation. But a coalition of faith leaders — from Mathew Staver, dean of the law school at Liberty University, to Gabriel Salguero, pastor of the progressive National Latino Evangelical Coalition — has already signaled a willingness to work together. The broad goal: to somehow grant legal status to the more than 11 million people who are living in a kind of civic purgatory.
“Our ethical commandment to love the stranger overlaps with the need for both parties to continue to align themselves with the changing demographics of America,” says Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “I would be hard-pressed to imagine that we can’t make progress on an issue like immigration.”
The question, though, is how. Kevin Appleby is director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a faith-based organization with vast experience alienating and persuading politicians on both sides of the aisle. Socially conservative on abortion, the bishops have long been leaders in the pursuit of immigration reform, arguing that a pathway to citizenship is a matter of justice and life (not to mention of critical importance to their enormous Hispanic constituency). People work in the United States without the protection of the law, Appleby says. Deportations needlessly break up families.
“We’ve had 7,000 people die in the Arizona desert since 2000,” he says. “That gets no attention. To Republicans who are pro-life, who are anti-immigrant, there’s an inconsistency there.”
Appleby believes the way forward is for the president to make a strong ethical and economic argument for immigration reform from his bully pulpit. “I don’t think he’s done that yet,” he says.
Then, he says, progressives need to concede that national security and enforcement are legitimate concerns. Perhaps those people at the negotiating table need to agree on security benchmarks, which, once met, can open the way for a path to citizenship. Throw in a provision in which employers verify employees’ immigration status, Appleby adds, and “you may have a deal there.”
The NLEC’s Salguero has a more holistic approach to bridging partisan divides. He is the kind of man who ends a phone call by asking how he can pray for you this week. He believes the first step toward reform is listening — compassionate listening that requires a sacrifice of egos and agendas.
“Hey, everyone says taking care of the poor is important. Well, let’s do that,” he says. In service of a greater good, he adds, there’s going to be pain on both sides.