Religious leaders say a blessing during the Interfaith Prayer Service for Comprehensive Immigration Reform at St. Peter in Chains in Cincinnati on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (Photos by Samantha Grier, WCPO Contributor)
Local representatives of the world’s major religions headed to downtown Cincinnati Thursday to pray the country’s elected officials move to make comprehensive reforms to the nation's immigration policy.
CINCINNATI -- Edmundo Meza is a dreamer.
The Milford resident is an honors student and has a 4.0 GPA at Cincinnati State, where he is pursuing a degree in nursing.
While he says he enjoys the person-to-person contact he gets from nursing, he has dreamed of being a doctor since he moved to Cincinnati as a 13-year-old.
After spending about five years living in various parts of Greater Cincinnati and finishing in the top 5 percent of his high school class, Meza says he earned a full ride to a top university. He saw medical school and helping people in his future.
But there was one problem: He wasn’t an American citizen.
“When you’re a kid you don’t see borders. I didn’t know I wasn’t a citizen. I just saw it as moving to a new house, leaving my friends behind so my family could work toward bettering themselves,” said Meza, whose family moved from Mexico 13 years ago.
The cost of tuition, the difficulty of finding work based on his citizenship status and the hardship of getting what he called the "right academic opportunity" considering the fact he wasn't a citizen sidetracked his dream for years.
But recent efforts in the nation's capital and push for immigration reform around the country have given hope to people like Meza, who attended an interfaith prayer service Tuesday at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in downtown Cincinnati.
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The approximately 100 people who attended the event asked a higher power to inspire the country to demand congressional leaders to work toward passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“We don't want to reap the benefits of living here and then run away. We are resources to this country and want to be here. But we can't prove that we're resources until you give us a chance,” said Meza who still works full time at a restaurant but was able to enroll at Cincinnati State thanks to an executive order (DACA ) issued by President Barack Obama that went into effect in August 2012.
Meza and other people like him are labeled DREAMers, people who would benefit from the proposed DREAM Act . The proposed law would give legal status to the small subset of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States before they turned 16 years old, are no older than 30, have been in the U.S. for at least five years, have been convicted of no serious crime, and have a high-school diploma, a GED, or a stint in the U.S. military.
While the law has yet to be passed, the directive issued by the Obama Administration granted residents who'd be eligible for the DREAM Act a reprieve from deportation and work-authorization papers for a short period.
But even if it garnered enough support on Capitol Hill, it wouldn't grant citizenship or legal status, which is part of the reason Tuesday's event was held.
In addition to speeches by Meza and Sengalese refugee Momadou Diop, nine different religious leaders from various backgrounds ranging from Catholicism to Baha'i to Unitarianism called for immigration reform.
The religious leaders who attended the gathering include:
The service was the brainchild of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati (MARCC ), the American Jewish Committee and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati . The groups came up with the idea for the prayer event during a meeting in October, according to Tony Stieritz , director of Catholic Social Action for the archdiocese.
Stieritz says the timing of the service was planned to coincide with Thanksgiving, which he says has a history that echoes many sentiments behind the cause.
“In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, participants will give thanks for the faith and cultural heritage that we each bring to enrich our nation,” wrote officials from the archdiocese in a press release prior to the gathering.
Attendees offered prayers of hope and a demand for change to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who they want to advance drastic immigration reform “so more may have a place at the ‘dinner table’ through a pathway to citizenship.”
“With the end of the year coming, we wanted
to make sure we told Congress we need something to be done,” Stieritz said. “We are going to pray for ourselves to continue to fight for this important issue and for our representatives to take this issue seriously.”
The group paid special attention to four local leaders – U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).
Although the group did not comment specifically on what their ideal immigration reform would look like, several people in attendance said they want the House to pass the current legislation being debated, which would make it easier for all undocumented residents to find a pathway to citizenship.
"We want Congress to repair the process by which people come here. It’s so broken that it’s difficult for people to get here to begin with," said Stieritz. "We are asking for new avenues for them to become citizens. We are asking for them to be admitted into a new legalization status."
Immigration attorney Kristin Hoffman noted some of the issues with the system.
"We are seeing master's degree level engineers and IT professionals from India wait over 10 years for a green card. The visa backlog has caused children of these professionals to age-out (turn 21) and be forced to leave the U.S. even though they have grown here," said Hoffman, who works with the Hammond Law Group , a corporate immigration firm located in Cincinnati.
Rev. Jim Schutte, a Catholic priest and pastor at St. Leo the Great in North Fairmount , said religious institutions have played and continue to play an important role in the immigration process -- both in terms of being a vehicle for change and a resource for the people affected by it.
“We want to be a voice for immigrants. We want to be a voice for justice immigration reform,” he said.
Schutte, who was in the audience during the service, says he leads a congregation comprised largely of people from Guatemala and the African nation of Burundi, some of whom are not legal citizens.
The Catholic priest says the daunting legislative battle ahead hasn't phased the people in his parish. Part of that reason, he says, is they've been able to retreat into their faith and respective religious traditions for support.
"We certainly cater to their religious needs, but we also want to try to give them emotional support, help them get settled. We offer programs like English classes right now and eventually want to set up citizenship classes so they can work toward becoming permanent citizens of this country," he said.
Obama has pushed for the House of Representatives to be more aggressive on immigration reform.
On Monday in San Francisco, the president called on House Republicans to take up legislation already passed by the Senate.
"It's long past time to fix our broken immigration system," Obama said.
That Senate measure, passed in June with some GOP support, includes an eventual pathway to citizenship for most of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
According to an article on CNN.com , Obama said he is willing to consider immigration legislation in pieces instead of one large bill – as Boehner suggested – but only a handful of workdays remain for the House this year.
The people at Tuesday’s meeting in Cincinnati said action must happen swiftly as lives and the well-being of entire families are at stake.
“This isn't something that we can sit around and let happen. We need to pray that God inspires us to be motivated to make this necessary change,” said Rev. William Billups, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater Cincinnati.
Immigration is an important topic for many of the world religions. Both in the Old and New Testaments, as well as other religious texts, stories are told of refugees forced to flee because of oppression.
For Catholics, contemporary Catholic Social Teaching has three primary principles when it comes to immigration, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops .
Those principles are:
Many of the other world religions, particularly the fellow Abrahamic faith traditions (Islam and Judaism), have developed policies regarding the treatment of immigration.
But those sentiments are also echoed in the secular history of this country, where since the time of the Mayflower waves of immigrants have moved to the United States in the pursuit of freedom from persecution and the American dream, according to Stieritz.
For these reasons, organizers of Tuesday's prayer event are trying to ensure contemporary migrants have a chance to make that dream a reality.
“We want to make sure people, our elected officials recognize this country was formed in part by immigrants, many of whom came here seeking religious freedom,” Stieritz said. “We want to make sure immigrants
of this era are treated with dignity and respect, and they have a chance to enrich their lives in this country.”
That idea was articulated by Diop, who admitted to coming to this country on a temporary visa and staying illegally before eventually earning his citizenship.
“This country, as it is today, is founded on the thoughts, ideas and labors of immigrants. We just want to be part of that tradition. We want to feel as though we are a part of this country," said Diop, who says fighting for citizenship in this country is difficult on families.
While he was in the U.S. illegally, Diop says he was unable to travel abroad for years due to a fear he would be unable to get back into the country. Now he's a citizen and recently made a trip home to visit family -- and came back to States.
However, some of his friends in Cincinnati voiced their jealousy. He said some of them are currently in the situation he was once in and "haven't been able to see some members of their family, friends, even their children for decades due to fear."
"It's not right. People are living in fear just because they want to see their family," he said after the service.
The experiences of Meza and Diop might be touching but they're not unique. In fact, many of those who attended expressed their family's history of immigrating to the United States.
Many participants brought “items symbolizing their faith and cultural heritages for which they are grateful.”
Potatoes representing the Irish Potato Famine , song books from Latin America, hand-made bags from Guatemala and images of immigrant religious leaders were placed in the baskets to express the rich history of people turning to the United States for refuge in their time of need.
All of those items were blessed by the religious leaders and delivered to the offices of the local congressional members.
Immediately following the meeting approximately 20 of the people in attendance participated in a procession to deliver a basket full of items to Chabot’s office.
Catholic priest Rev. Louis Gasparini, director of the Archdiocese Hispanic Ministry Office, offered a prayer at the office, praying for the work of Chabot and his staff and that they “accept our tokens of faith and cultural heritage with gratitude and courage to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Stieritz said.
If only one of his prayers is answered, Meza say he hopes for the following:
"I just want the chance for the country to let me prove to how much I want to be here."