July prayer vigil hopes to reform immigrant regulations

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Sister Janice Vanderneck looked tired as she took her place at a table in the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, where a half-dozen other immigration activists waited.

The Sister of St. Joseph had come straight from the Allegheny County Jail, where a good friend of many years -- a baker who had given countless hours to helping his parish -- was imprisoned and awaiting deportation.

The undocumented immigrant had been a passenger in a vehicle that had run a stop sign on the South Side when officers asked for his papers. He was so shocked that he wasn't certain if it was police, immigration agents or some other authority that took him to jail.

What he said he did remember, Sister Janice said, were the officer's words: "Welcome to Arizona."

The meeting had been called to organize local participation in a national prayer vigil for federal immigration reform at a time when Arizona prepares to implement a law requiring police to check anyone they suspect is in the United States without authorization. Their goal: to prevent such laws from spreading to other states.

The Isaiah 58 Vigil of Prayer and Fasting is named for a chapter in the Bible that demands justice for the oppressed.

Organizers are asking people to sign up for 30-minute time slots in the round-the-clock vigil that runs through July 28, the day that the Arizona law takes effect. They can pray wherever they are. But there will also be an organized vigil at 6:30 p.m. June 22 in the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Squirrel Hill.

Sister Janice and her organizers, all of whom have worked with local immigrant communities, believe it's wrong for people who entered the country without papers, but who have been good neighbors in their communities, to be arrested and deported, often leaving behind spouses and children. They refuse to use the term "illegal aliens," arguing that immigration regulations aren't law.

"They aren't violating a criminal law, they're violating an immigration policy. Criminal law is what our police are supposed to uphold, not departmental policies," said Diana Marin, an organizer with the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network.

That's a debatable point. Peter Rogers, an immigration attorney in Pittsburgh, said he fully sympathizes with the desire to not use what he calls "dehumanizing language."

"But whether you call them illegal aliens or undocumented immigrants, at the end of the day they're in the exact same position," said Mr. Rogers.

In any case organizers of the prayer vigil say they don't like the current policies any more than do the people who support Arizona-style laws.

"We're all in agreement that we need good, national reform," said Wanda Guthrie, a volunteer at the Merton Center.

Such reform would provide an orderly way for citizens of other countries to apply for and receive permission to immigrate and would place a priority on keeping families together, they said. It would also provide a way for undocumented workers who are already in the United States to earn legal status and eventual citizenship, without requiring them to return to their native land or to pay exorbitant fees to gain that legal status.

They know that they face great opposition. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry recently summed up the beliefs of many Americans when he said that undocumented workers "take away the jobs of unemployed Pennsylvania construction workers" and use benefits such as schools and social services without paying taxes.

Undocumented workers generally pay the same taxes that other workers do, but receive fewer benefits because they don't apply for Social Security and are barred from some other programs, said the Rev. Linda Theophilus, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Eastmont.

"Their employers must pay Social Security and income tax. They pay sales tax," she said. Though they rarely own property, their rent pays the landlord's property taxes, which support the schools.

She believes that many Pennsylvanians believe immigration works as it did when their great-grandparents came here, and that if foreigners "go to the back of the line" they can eventually come to the United States legally.

"There is no line," she said, adding that many past routes to immigration have closed. "For many people who want to come to the United States for legitimate reasons -- to be with family, to escape torture or to escape crushing poverty and be able to feed their kids -- there is no line to get in. The waiting period for some family visas is 20 years."

Even legal residents of the United States must be deported if they have committed some common misdemeanors, she said.

"Legal, permanent residents, including soldiers who have served in the U.S. military, parents and spouses of U.S. citizens, people who were adopted from other countries as children but never naturalized -- they are all subject to deportation," she said. "It's required if they have done something that can receive up to a year of jail time. The immigration judges have no discretion. They must deport them."

Defenders of the Arizona law have accused activists such as those at the Merton Center of exaggerating the law's impact. They say that police officers have always been empowered to check the immigration status of suspects. But Ms. Marin says the difference with the Arizona law, is that police officers will be required to do it.

"This will suck up the resources of local police from fighting crime," she said, adding that many prominent police chiefs oppose it for that reason. "It turns federal policy into state law and requires local officers to enforce it."

To those who view such measures as ways to fight crime, she cites studies, including one from the University of Colorado in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly, demonstrating that undocumented immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than are U.S. citizens.

Local immigration activists say that laws such as the one in Arizona end up targeting Mexicans and Middle Eastern people. Although it's impossible to know for sure, "In Pittsburgh it's likely that there are more undocumented Irish immigrants than Mexicans," Ms. Marin said.

Those who are interested in joining the prayer vigil are asked to contact Ms. Guthrie at spiritualprogressives.pgh@gmail.com.

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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