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Local religious leaders rally for immigrants

By Christine Williams
Posted: 4/20/2007

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Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston speaks at the MIRA Interfaith Summit for Immigrant Justice at the Statehouse April 12. To his right is a photo of one of the children affected by the recent immigration raid in New Bedford. Pilot photo/Christine Williams


BOSTON -- People of faith must work to repair our nation’s broken immigration system, asserted religious leaders at the Interfaith Summit for Immigrant Justice. The summit, organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), was held in the Statehouse’s Great Hall on April 12.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, remarked that all major religions teach the sacredness and dignity of the human person though they may express it in different ways.

Father Hehir called immigration in this country a “broken system” where the dignity of every individual is not upheld. The podium from which he spoke was surrounded by photographs of children whose parents were detained in the raid of a New Bedford factory on March 6.

He gestured to those images and said “These pictures of what happened in New Bedford illustrate how people fall through the gaps of a system that is broken. We need to advocate for comprehensive reform to fix the system.”

MIRA literature available at the event encouraged people to call their elected representatives to urge action for the New Bedford families affected by the raid. MIRA also advocated increased funding for citizenship services because of the increased number of eligible immigrants, cost of education in order to pass the difficult naturalization exam and impending increase in the application fees. Helping immigrants become citizens is good for the workforce, national security, politics, the economy and families, the handouts said.

The invocation was delivered by Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, director of the Office of New Bostonians, established in 1998 to meet the needs of the growing and changing immigrant communities in Boston. She is from Malaysia and since coming to the United States, has founded several organizations for immigrants, including a battered women’s shelter and food pantry program.

“The future is for us to shape for our children and our children’s children. Now is the time,” she said.

The welcome was led by representatives of the Native American Center of Boston who called the United States “a nation of immigrants” and sang an “honor song” to all recent immigrants.

Rev. Hurmon E. Hamilton, Jr., senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church USA, said that Native Americans met the “undocumented” immigrants of their day with “a spirit of hospitality.” Many of them helped the immigrants through their first winter in their new world, he said.

Americans now need to do the same for present-day immigrants, he added.

The event’s emcee, Sister Maria Teresa Browne, SCN, a Catholic nun who is the administrative assistant to the academic dean for special projects at the Episcopal Divinity School, is an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. She became a U.S. citizen 30 years ago.

Sister Maria said she has been influenced by the words of Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris” which means “Peace on Earth.”

In that work, Pope John XXIII outlines the rights of man, including the right to live, to be respected, to work, to take an active role in public life and to worship according to his own conscience.

The pope also highlighted the right to emigrate and immigrate, writing, “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own state. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, worldwide fellowship of men.”

Sister Maria added that she was also greatly influenced by her preparation for U.S. citizenship in 1975. The documents she received, which she brought with her to the Great Hall, described the qualities of a good citizen. Good citizens must use their gifts to work toward solutions to societal problems, the pamphlet said.

Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, said that all who work with immigrants are doing the will of God.

“God’s work is being done, no doubt about it, here in the work you do,” he said.

Sheikh Basyouny Nehela, the Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston, said that God would be proud of the work done by people of faith, especially when they work together to support justice and freedom.

“This meeting is a blessing from God because we are here to meet each other,” he said.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner, spiritual leader of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, urged all gathered to take action and support legislative change. She advocated in-state college tuition for all children of immigrants. Without a college education, their future is dim and they will not be able to contribute to society, she said.

The event ended with a short prayer from each of the religious leaders who spoke. Attendees were asked to respond by saying “Hear our voice” in English, Hebrew, Cantonese, Russian, Arabic, Haitian Kreyol and Spanish.

Following the gathering in the Great Hall, participants went to speak with their elected representatives. Workshops followed on media advocacy, best practices on immigration and different faith perspectives on justice.