Here in Illinois, where I live, we’ve gained a national infamy for corrupt politics. In fact, we’ve had four former governors imprisoned in as many decades. On Wednesday, while in Washington , D.C., I got to hear from two Illinois elected officials who have each also spent time in jail—but whom I believe are models of political courage.
The first is Mark Curran, who serves as the Sheriff of Lake County, a collar county of Chicago that borders Wisconsin. Sheriff Curran’s stay in jail was optional: after hearing Prison Fellowship-founder Charles Colson at a Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in 2008, Sheriff Curran announced that he would spend a week in the Lake County Jail, which, as Sheriff, he was responsible for operating. He decided that it was important for him, as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, to understand the situation of those who are incarcerated. “People who have never been in jail,” he told Newsweek, “don’t know what it’s like to sit on the toilet in full view of everyone.”
At one time, Sheriff Curran took a harsh, enforcement-only approach to immigration issues, openly associating with Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” who has gained notoriety for parading undocumented immigrants about in pink underwear and keeping them in “tent cities” where temperatures have reached 138 degrees in the Arizona heat. In 2008, Sheriff Curran made Lake County the first county in the state to participate in a controversial federal program known as 287(g), which allowed his local sheriff’s office to help enforce federal immigration law.
A Republican, Sheriff Curran is also a deeply-committed Catholic Christian. A few years ago—after Francis Cardinal George challenged him to apply his conviction that human beings are made in God’s image (which had led him to his strong pro-life position) to undocumented immigrants as well—Sheriff Curran found himself wrestling with how to apply the teachings of Scripture and of his Church about immigrants to his vocation as a sheriff. He determined that he had to dramatically change his posture toward immigrants: yes, the law was important and he was bound as Sheriff to enforce state law, but when the law was separating families, as a Christian he had to speak up for better laws, which would respect the dignity of immigrants, maintain the unity of the nuclear family, and restore the rule of law to a system that, through decades of selective non-enforcement, had lost its meaning.
Driven by his Christian faith, Sheriff Curran has become one of our state’s most effective advocates for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Last week, he was with me and many others (representing a coalition of “Bibles, Badges, and Businesses”) in Washington, D.C. challenging our Members of Congress to enact real solutions to our country’s immigration problems. What I admire most about Sheriff Mark is his consistency and his courage. He’s committed to doing what he believes God has called him to do, whether that aligns him perfectly with one party or not and whether it is politically expedient or not: “I’m not going to run scared with regards to my political future when my highest priority is God,” he says.
Sheriff Curran has also inspired others in his party—particularly here in Illinois—to embrace compassionate policies toward immigrants. Last week, the Illinois State Senate passed a bill that would permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses after hearing Sheriff Curran’s testimony in favor of the bill, which he argues will improve public safety for everyone since immigrants, who are driving to work anyway, will be required to pass a driver’s test and purchase insurance. At a press conference, several Republican senators, a former Republican governor (our last governor not to end up in jail), and the Republican comptroller all voiced their support, and the bill ultimately passed through the Senate by a wide margin, with significant bipartisan support. In Illinois, in contrast to some other states, the Republican Party cannot be accused of being anti-immigrant—and Sheriff Curran has made a significant contribution to his party’s praiseworthy evolution on immigration issues. (The growing Latino vote and the increasingly vocal faith community in the state have contributed as well).
On the other side of the political aisle, Representative Luis Gutierrez—who also spoke at least week’s events in Washington coordinated by the National Immigration Forum—is another leader I admire for his consistency and his courage. Though I don’t agree with him on every issue, Representative Gutierrez has been a champion for immigration reform for many, many years, critiquing both Republicans and fellow Democrats when they have stood in the way of sensible, bipartisan reform. In fact, that’s how Representative Gutierrez has found himself briefly in jail: in July 2011, he was arrested outside of the White House for protesting against President Obama’s record level of deportations.
While many Democrats have claimed to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Representative Gutierrez has actually authored and introduced legislation: alongside Republican Representative (now Senator-Elect) Jeff Flake of Arizona, Representative Gutierrez introduced the STRIVE (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) Act, which could serve as a helpful starting point as Congress and the President are finally suggesting that they may be willing to work together to find bipartisan solutions to our long-time immigration problems.
Congressman Gutierrez has been among the most tireless advocates for just immigrant integration policies, insisting that our country recognize our economic dependency on undocumented immigrants. As he recently told Moody Radio’s Mark Elfstrand, “We have a responsibility as Americans to treat them humanely, fairly, and justly, and integrate them so that their work is rewarded and compensated.”
We need more elected officials like Sheriff Curran and Representative Gutierrez—both here in Illinois and in the rest of the country—to exercise courage and speak up for such just, compassionate, and sensible immigration policies that will integrate immigrants into our communities. Ultimately, it is probably in both parties’ political interests to do so, but they should do so for a simpler reason: because it is the right thing to do.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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