President Barack Obama announced a plan to use his executive powers to grant deportation relief to 4.9 million undocumented immigrants Thursday night, a limited step that has evoked praise from faith groups who continue to push Congress to pass more expansive immigration reform legislation.
During his speech, the President outlined various reasons for the executive action, pointing towards the widespread exploitation of undocumented workers by business owners and Congress’ own failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. But in the final moments of his address, Obama offered a moral justification for the order by referring to the Bible, paraphrasing a spiritual command repeated several times in the books of Exodus and Leviticus.
“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too,” he said.
The line was brief, but also emblematic of the unusually influential role faith groups have played in helping muster support for immigration reform. Over the past few years, leaders from a wide variety of religious traditions have passionately advocated for legislation to address the plight of America’s 11 million undocumented. Clergy and other people of faith have marched, protested, fasted, and even granted sanctuary to undocumented immigrants in defiance of federal law. Many Christian groups — including Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals — have explained their support for immigration reform by citing Bible verses similar to the one mentioned in the President’s speech; namely, the mutiple instructions within scripture to welcome “the stranger.”
On Friday, many of these faith-based advocates applauded the President’s executive action, which was endorsed several weeks prior by several influential Catholic bishops.
“We’ve been on record asking the Administration to do everything within its legitimate authority to bring relief and justice to our immigrant brothers and sisters,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration. “As pastors, we welcome any efforts within these limits that protect individuals and protect and reunite families and vulnerable children.”
But even as religious leaders celebrated the relief the new law grants to almost 5 million immigrants, some lamented the fact that millions more remain unaffected by the order, and called for Congress to pass legislation that could do more to help America’s undocumented.
“Today, millions of our neighbors and community members have the security and certainty that they will be able to stay with their families — at least temporarily — without the fear of deportation,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said in a press release. “But no Presidential action can fix our broken immigration system. We reaffirm our commitment to a comprehensive, legislative solution. Congress has the ultimate power and must act. In Leviticus 19:34, we are commanded ‘You must love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ We must remember our tradition, teachings, and history as we work towards making the future brighter for all those who wish to build a home in the United States.”
Rev. John L. McCullough, President and CEO of Church World Service, echoed Gutow’s ambivalence.
“We celebrate alongside millions of our immigrant brothers and sisters who will be able to shed the fear of deportation and live anew,” McCullough said. “But we also remember the millions who are still in need of relief. As people of faith, we believe in the dignity of all people, in the unity of all families, and in the power of redemption, and that the implementation of this executive action should reflect those values.”
Grassroots faith-based advocates also weighed in, with some vowing to continue staging unorthodox protest efforts to push for more comprehensive immigration reform. In a national press call organized by the Church World Service and convened just hours before the President’s speech, Rev. W. J. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, in Portland, Oregon, explained how his church had recently harbored an undocumented immigrant. The effort was part of the Sanctuary Movement, a growing — and often successful — phenomenon where houses of worship take in immigrants scheduled for deportation and demand that federal officials drop their case.
Knutson told reporters that despite Obama’s order, church communities like his will continue to act on their religious convictions and stand up for undocumented people they say are unfairly threatened with deportation.
“Sanctuary Congregations, people of faith and so many people of good are prepared to escalate our actions and provide sanctuary to those who remain at risk in the midst of our nation’s broken immigration system until all are truly free,” Knutson said. He later added: “We’re not about to watch someone be put as a second class citizen and living in fear. We’ll continue this, even more fully, even with partial immigration reform tonight. With a 900-person congregation, no one is flinching.”