To keep you up-to-date on the latest developments in states around the country, I’m proud to begin offering you interviews with some of the immigration reform movement’s most experienced leaders. I hope their knowledge can inform your efforts. Today, I’m pleased to bring you an email interview with Pastor Miguel F. Gomez-Acosta, Senior Pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mesa, Arizona. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the interview.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What drove you to become an advocate for immigrants and immigration reform?
Pastor Miguel F. Gomez-Acosta (MG): For me the immigration issue is personal. I am an immigrant to this country. I was born in Mexico and my mother and I immigrated to the United States as undocumented immigrants, yet this reality did not last long, since the amnesty of 1987 was around the corner and we were able to become documented because of it. Because of the amnesty I was able to take advantage of many privileges, including serving this country in the armed services and go to college to be the first in my family to receive a graduate level degree.
When I see the families in my parish who are struggling with this issue and I see their bright children lose hope of a better future because they are undocumented, I get passionate about giving them the same opportunities I had.
CP: Do you work closely with immigrants or migrants on a regular basis? If so, what are some of their experiences like?
MG: I began ministry as a mission developer for the East Valley Latino Ministry here in the Grand Canyon Synod. My task was to begin a Spanish language ministry of the Lutheran tradition. This meant that I was deeply involved in the lives of families who were struggling to make it because they were undocumented.
Today I am the Senior Pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is a congregation that is dedicated to be a bilingual community. We have Spanish and English services every weekend. Since the neighborhood around us is very diverse, I still work with families who are undocumented.
Most of our families are struggling to make it. They have jobs and work in them as honestly as they can. Yet because they can’t get state issued licenses, they run the risk of a simple traffic violation becoming a one way ticket back to their country origin. They are in a constant state of anxiety, not knowing if they will make home that day.
CP: Have you seen a spirit of welcome and support grow in Arizona in the time you’ve worked there?
MG: Yes and no. Where I do see it more often than not is in faith communities, but even then not everyone in the pew is in full agreement. Our local bishops (ELCA, UMC, RCC, PCUSA, UCC) have been really vocal about the issue of welcoming the stranger, so that is good to see. Yet the message is not always lived out at the parish level.
As for the community in general, it has been my experience that Arizona is still an unhospitable place for immigrants. Too many extreme conservative groups still hold power in local politics.
CP: In your opinion, what most crucially needs to be addressed in an immigration reform bill?
MG: For me the most crucial element in a comprehensive immigration reform is some kind of path to citizenship. If we just do worker visas or residency visas that can never lead to the opportunity of citizenship, then we are only creating a group of second class citizens.
CP: How are you building up support for immigration reform in your state?
MG: I have been a part of Valley Interfaith Project, which is our local Industrialized Areas Foundation community organizing group, since 2006. We engage in one on one conversations with people in our communities and also do civic academies, which teach on the issue. Twice a year or so, we have Civic Actions, in which we engage with politicians at all levels in civil conversation about the issues.
As an example this last Thursday I co-chaired a Civic Action, which among our guest was Gov. Brewer, and we talked about education and health care. Though we did not have questions specifically for Gov. Brewer about immigration, we did have some of our leaders report to the governor and the other politicians our desire for immigration reform. In the past we have had Civic Actions just on the immigration issue, but because we are a broad-based organization, we don’t just talk about immigration.