Many dedicated organizations and leaders are fighting for compassionate and thoughtful immigration reform in states across the country. Some leaders at the forefront have shared their stories with us. I’m excited to bring you an email interview with Jen Smyers, Associate Director for Immigration and Refugee Policy at Church World Service. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the interview.
Join Smyers in the fight for fair and compassionate immigration reform and welcoming state policies! Beyond this interview, you can learn the latest about immigration reform legislation or take action.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): How did you first become involved in immigration and refugee work?
Jen Smyers (JS): When I was at American University, I went to a debate between Joan Maruskin, who was the Washington representative for Church World Service at the time and Jack Martin from Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). They were debating immigration policy. Joan brought up the biblical call to welcome the stranger: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees, and the Disciples were all immigrants during their ministries. I was amazed that I had never heard about the migration stories of so many people in the Bible. I spoke with Joan after the debate, and then started interning at Church World Service and really found my call. I felt that this work was part of living out my faith.
CP: You’ve written about how family unity is a key part of comprehensive immigration reform. Why is family unity so important?
JS: As people of faith in particular, family unity is the core of who we are. People of faith have an important understanding of family unity and its place in raising children and providing comfort in hard times. People of faith are introduced to the issue of immigration because they know families who have been separated because of deportation, detention, or visa backlogs, or they see someone who is in the pew who is alone or sad and they go over to comfort them and learn their story. Visas are backlogged sometimes for 24 years, and I think this horrifies people of faith, because we celebrate family unity, and know that family unity provides togetherness, support for members in hard times, help with school work, help starting a business, and is part of building community.
We know at a gut level that the immigration system should unite families. The immigration system shouldn’t be a barrier to families being together, but it should be a facilitator for family unity.
CP: How are you and your organization, Church World Service, advancing policies for immigrants and refugees?
JS: We work closely with LIRS and Interfaith Immigration Coalition to advance immigrants rights on two fronts, policy advocacy and grassroots advocacy. Our policy advocacy involves meeting with members of Congress and their staff and reminding them of what people of faith are doing locally to build stronger, more welcoming communities. We also bring up the policy specifics, and advocate for policies that promote family unity, a pathway to citizenship, reform injustices we see in deportation and detention policies, and improve the lives of refugees here and abroad. In our grassroots advocacy, we work with local communities to promote immigrants’ rights at all levels and to stop the negative impacts of certain policies.
For example, Secure Communities is a program under Immigration and Customs Enforcement that has local police serve as immigration enforcers. This makes undocumented immigrants afraid to report crimes, because if they do, officers might ask for their immigration papers. So we are working with immigrant communities and police officers to have conversations about the negative outcomes of these policies. We are also working against Arizona copycat state policies which have encouraged racial profiling. To do all of this, we promote the voices of local faith leaders, encourage immigrants themselves to host creative community education forums, prayer vigils, and have their opinions published in the local media. Local grassroots has been most effective to accomplish our goals for national immigration reform as well, as people of faith and refugee resettlement offices across the country hold prayer vigils, local congressional visits, and other creative actions to show that they care about immigrants’ rights and want immigration reform.
CP: You’ve been active on immigration issues across the country. How have Americans throughout the United States come out to support immigrants and refugees?
JS: I think we saw in the recent elections, not just the presidential election but also local elections, that people generally favor candidates that have real solutions to fix our broken immigration system, and that Americans reject hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. They want to see solutions. What we’ve seen is people coming out in support of DREAMers – undocumented young people – and people who have real relationships with people who are impacted directly by our immigration system. People of faith are meeting and supporting those who are impacted.
The biblical call to welcome the stranger is clear, and there is an outpouring of support through vigils, neighbor to neighbor congressional visits, letters to editors, joining local coalitions to sign letters, and phone calls to Congress. Last week we had more than 3,000 phone calls to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding amendments considered to the immigration reform bill. People are eager to have their voices heard; people email and call me every day to ask how they can help. A great example is the United Methodist Church has been screenings Jasmine’s Story, the story of a teenager who was left alone after her parents were deported, and then taking action to support immigration reform. All these signs of support and education have been powerful and are moving the ball forward toward immigration reform.
CP: Some politicians who were against immigration reform are being swayed. What is causing them to come around, and how do we convince others to jump on the bandwagon?
JS: We saw the consequences of the election. A lot of republicans were not in support of immigration, and the democrats had promised it, but hadn’t delivered. Senators McCain, Graham, Flake, and Rubio, have come out and said quite frankly that “Republicans will never win a presidential election unless we get right on this issue.” The public has been transformed through DREAMers and people of faith who have been increasing public support for immigration reform. DREAMers and people of faith in particular have created a space where it is seen as mean-spirited to be against positive immigration reform.
Now we have to keep the pressure on, not sit back and rest on our laurels, but make sure members of Congress continue to hear those stories and know that we will continue to hold them accountable to real solutions and immigration reform that creates a pathway to citizenship, reunites families, and improves the lives of refugees.