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Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights Keeps Leading

By Deborah Lee


For a quarter century the grassroots interfaith movement has been best known for developing interfaith dialogue and new ‘bridge-building’ relationships. From the Parliament of the World’s Religions massive gatherings – to thousands of interfaith councils globally – to the 700 United Religion Initiative Cooperation Circles in 85 countries, grassroots interfaith leadership has been finding its voice in multiple arenas. Not so much in the public eye are thousands of interfaith organizations less concerned about being known than with engendering collaborative social justice activities, starting with meeting the needs of the hungry and homeless. Today many ‘cause’ campaigns, like those addressing climate change, have taken an interfaith posture for practical, collaborative purposes. Others, though, like the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (ICIR), for years have used interfaith collaboration to fuel hands-on social justice ministry and activism. In a day when foundations are calling for ‘measurable results’ from their giving, and when ‘connect and collaborate’ are interfaith buzzwords, there is much to learn from groups like ICIR. Ed.

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Championing Immigrant Rights Collaboratively

For more than 20 years, the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights has brought a human face to the immigration debate in America through prayer, action, and advocacy. Born at a time of intense anti-immigrant sentiment inthe early 1990s, the Coalition was initially organized by immigrant community leaders, along with faith and community organizations in Northern California, standing together in support of immigrant rights.

ICIR joined with 250 Cathlic nuns, gather in Sacramento to deliver a letter to Governor Jerry Brown supporting a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights. The bill passed in 2013. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

ICIR joined with 250 Cathlic nuns, gather in Sacramento to deliver a letter to Governor Jerry Brown supporting a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights. The bill passed in 2013. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

“ICIR was one of the jewels of the National Sanctuary Defense Fund” remembers Eileen Purcell, board member of the Fund (NDSF). An initial legal defense fund for Sanctuary workersand Central Americans expanded into the vision of an organization championing the rights of all immigrants. NDSF was joined by the Northern California Ecumenical Council, the American Jewish Congress, the Franciscan Province of Santa Barbara’s Office of Social Concerns, St. Anthony’s Foundation, and the Office of Hispanic Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Oakland. Working collaboratively, they formed the interfaith voice and institutional backbone for the new coalition.

Tracy Salkowitz, founding ICIR chair and former regional director of American Jewish Congress, recalls, “In 1993 there were a slew of anti-immigrant bills that were introduced in the state legislature. There was a lot of fear. There was never any question that the faith community would be part of standing up for what was right. There was no question that the Jewish community would be a part of it. We understand what it is to be scapegoated.”

Becoming a Community

ICIR’s first event was an interfaith liturgy and press conference held October 4, 1993, the Feast of Saint Francis, in San Francisco, to affirm the rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees everywhere, and to lift up their many contributions. Early the next year, a date was set to go to Sacramento, the State Capitol, and have immigrants tell their own stories to legislators, address the anti-immigrant scapegoating head-on. Tessa Rouverol Callejo, founding director of ICIR, remembers that first event:

“What we didn’t realize was that when we put this call out, it would really hit a chord with folks, and immigrants themselves from around the state. We expected 200-250 immigrants at the most would come up in February 1994 to Sacramento to tell their stories, to bring the issues to local legislators from around the state, and really call for sane, just, and humane immigration policies in California. Then 500 people showed up, twice as many people as we were prepared for, from every part of California.

This public action co-sponsored by ICIR was held in support of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in 2014. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

This public action co-sponsored by ICIR was held in support of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in 2014. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

“We already knew that there was a ballot measure, Prop 187, that was being circulated around the state. At that point we thought, there’s no way that this can possibly pass. It’s so mean spirited, it would stop children from going to public schools, and it would deny families access to basic services like health care. It was just unimaginable to us that it could possibly become law. But we knew we needed to stand up and organize to stop it.”

That initial event became the model for the annual Immigrant Day, now sponsored by the California Immigrant Policy Center and supported by ICIR. Held each year in Sacramento, it’s replicated in state capitols across the country by immigrant communities. Though that initial event in Sacramento was a tremendous success, a month later Prop 187 was approved by 59 percent of California voters. Clearly the religious community needed to continue advocating for humane treatment of newcomers in the U.S.

In Southern California the ICIR Coalition was active with issues at the border in San Diego. San Diego board member Rosemary Johnston explains why: “The San Ysidro border crossing is the busiest border in the world. Fifty million people crossing every year. It is the biggest migratory corridor in the world. There are billions of dollars of goods going across every day, but ironically people are not allowed to go across.

“We’re ground zero, we’re the ones seeing border patrol chasing people through neighborhoods and rounding people up at trolley stops. And this was the place where border deaths would happen. It was right in our face.” So in 1994, in partnership with the American Friends Service Committee, ICIR helped organize the first Posada Sin Fronteras, Posada without Borders, an annual event that brings together hundreds of people on both sides of the border fence to share in a joint prayer and ritual at the border fence in San Diego. The Bishop of Tijuana and other religious leaders pray and sing a sacred ritual reenacting Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ search for hospitality. They remember the names of those who have died crossing the border.

Rosemary notes that the border posada creates a somber awareness of the importance of compassion and hospitality towards immigrants. Faith calls us regardless of the laws of the land to show that towards one another. And there is also a lot of joy in it celebrating with people from other countries. God’s heart knows no boundaries.

Posada Sin Fronteras continues every year in mid-December.

Social Justice’s Broad Action Agenda

In the following 20 years, ICIR became active on both state and national legislation:

ineteen were arrested at this ICIR demonstration protesting an Arizona law that was subsequently declared unconstitutional. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

ineteen were arrested at this ICIR demonstration protesting an Arizona law that was subsequently declared unconstitutional. – Photo: ICIR-CLUE

  • We opposed Federal Welfare Reform sought to eliminate legal permanent residents from participating in public safety-net programs.
  • We opposed efforts to curtail pre-natal benefits for undocumented women and championed the continuation of benefits including food stamps.
  • We lost welfare reform at the Federal level, but statewide established one of the strongest public-safety nets in the country. California led the way and many other states followed suit.
  • ICIR supported and voiced issues that other organizations did not want to talk about, such as driver’s licenses for immigrants, the deportation of legal residents, and legalization.
  • Developing leadership has been a theme, particularly through conferences focused on informing people of their rights and changing policies that adversely impact their lives.
  • Throughout the Los Angeles Basin, workshops have been held for years on protecting yourself when immigration enforcement comes, better understand immigration laws, and the process for seeking for citizenship. The training also clarifies and educates people about their access to benefits such as medical care and food stamps.
  • Fostering leadership has been a theme, and changing policies that adversely impact immigrant lives.
  • ICIR commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station, which for primarily Chinese and other immigrants was a detention center in the center of the San Francisco Bay. Leading a pilgrimage of more than 400 people, we remembered Chinese and other immigrants who were detained and drew comparisons with those immigrants facing deportation today.
  • Today ICIR engages and organizes the faith community to respond to the impacts of the growing immigration enforcement system, the system of mass deportations and detention of women, children and immigrants, and seeks to transform local, state and federal laws so that immigrants can live without fear and as full members of society.

Former ICIR staff member, Francisco Herrera, says “I think it comes back to the point of humanization and seeing the face of God in each other. First, helping people’s collective memory that we are all migrants, that the human person by nature is migratory. Second, that when we serve each other, we’re serving God. We’re able to see God in each other. When we work for each other we work with the same level of intensity as when we work for God.”

Today ICIR continues its work and mission under the auspices of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Whether it’s transforming hearts, organizing for the Dream Act, immigration reform, an end to the detentions and deportations, or championing immigrant workers’ rights, ICIR continues to raise awareness across diverse ethnic and religious communities about our need for a just immigration system.

When ICIR began, it was one of the few public voices supporting immigrants in California. Today, there are a multitude of partners who share our goals. Says co-founder Rev. Phil Lawson, “The operative word is interfaith that is the wind beneath our sails, commitment to be in interfaith relationship that’s been the power. Faith and love is the foundation of power to do justice.”

A more detailed history of ICIR is available here.