I always identified Tuscaloosa with “Roll Tide,” not the “Clergy Criminalization Act.”
That changed when I spent two weeks in late 2011 working with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
I traveled to Alabama to support the resident bishop of my denomination, who had joined three others in suing the state for criminalizing Christianity. Earlier in 2011, the state legislature passed a law whose many effects included abridging the church’s ability to carry out its role in the world by making it illegal to transport or harbor an undocumented immigrant.
That should be a story we read about in history textbooks of Soviet Russia, not the national section of the New York Times.
Worshiping in a half-empty church where the language of prayer is Spanish, then hearing the few congregants who had not left the state describe the “psychological terror” imposed by Alabama’s harsh anti-immigrant law, left an indelible mark on my soul.
I found an Alabama that was anything but a “sweet home,” and I felt called to minister to both the devastated local immigrant community and legislators who passed the law. After my two-week stint in Alabama, I knew my involvement with immigration advocacy had just begun, as had my reflection on what it meant to be an immigrant in America.
I’ll be honest: before Alabama I had never thought of my own immigrant history. It’s hard to trace. Both sides of my family have deep roots in this country. On one side, I’m a descendent of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. Another strand seems to lead back to Thomas Graves, who helped found Jamestown in 1608.
It’s safe to say I’m far removed from my ancestors’ arrival, which would make it easy to forget. God knew that we were prone to such forgetfulness. Among the 92 times in the Old Testament that God instructs the Israelites regarding how to treat the resident alien, we find a call to collective remembering in Leviticus 19:34: “Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
And so I’ve remembered and reflected on my own family’s immigration story and decided not just to advocate for new Americans, but also to identify as an immigrant. I may be at least a tenth-generation immigrant, but when we identify with our immigrant roots, no matter how deep they are, we more profoundly realize that immigration is about the collective “us,” not the xenophobia-inducing “them.”
With eyes newly open to anti-immigrant terror taking place in my country and a newfound identity as tenth-generation immigrant, I began working at the National Immigration Forum a year ago to advocate for the value of immigrants to America.
As a member of the Forum’s Constituencies team, I’ve worked on our project Forging a New Consensus on Immigrants and America. A growing and diverse constituency of conservative, moderate and progressive leaders have come together to go beyond the rhetoric and find common ground for practical solutions. It’s an exciting project to be involved with, and it has led me to collaborate with evangelical groups across the political spectrum, from the Southern Baptist Convention to Sojourners.
In Indianapolis I met a sheriff who once supported harsh immigration policies but whose faith had led him to a conversion experience. In Portland, Ore., I met Christian college students awakened to immigration reform advocacy by the G92 Movement. In a return to Alabama, I met a campus pastor who, like me, found herself unexpectedly called to immigration reform advocacy and let Christ lead her into the struggle.
And here in Washington last month, more than 250 leaders from across the political spectrum, including many evangelical leaders, joined for a National Strategy Session to call on the president and Congress to pass compassionate and just immigration reform in 2013.
Working professionally to make America more welcoming has been a welcome personal journey. An attempt to criminalize my faith led me to this fight, but meeting so many devoted Christians along the way has affirmed my faith in innumerable ways.
I thank God every day for the opportunity to live my faith in this way, and pray that in year two on the job more and more of my young evangelical sisters and brothers will take up this cause with me.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is the Assistant for Constituencies at the National Immigration Forum.
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