Vigil and prayer service for immigration reform
By Jackson Somes
Thousands of unaccompanied children travel across South or Latin America every year in hopes of entering the United States. These children, traveling without parents or guardian supervision, risk their lives for a chance at a better life in America. The Southwest Key Programs provides shelter for homeless immigrant children who have crossed the the U.S. border and are searching for either their families or a better life.
USD student Denise Ambriz volunteered her time to work with the Southwest Key Programs to help the unaccompanied children currently living there. As part of her job she would talk with the children held at the shelter. One of the activities she did with the children was an ice-breaker where each child announced one interesting fact about themselves to the group. This is a typical activity, but took on a much more somber tone with this particular group of children. One boy said, as his interesting fact, that he had gone seven days without food while walking 30 miles during his journey to the United States.
“He had so much faith still,” Ambriz said, “and still so much hope.”
Ambriz was one of the speakers at the event “A Day of Prayer for Compassion and Immigration Reform” held on Sept. 25. On this night, USD hosted a student led event featuring a series of student speakers, a prayer service, a candlelight vigil and a silent walk to Founders Chapel to attend the Mass for Peace.
USD was one of many Catholic universities all across the United States that held similar events to increase awareness and pressure for the need to reform the current immigration system in the United States.
USD joined other colleges including Georgetown University, Boston College and Loyola University of Chicago holding similar events to express the same message.
“They [the other universities] were holding either prayer services, masses, vigils, candlelight vigils for greater immigration reform,” senior Ernesto Reyes said.
Reyes works with University Ministry as well as the nonprofit group Faith in Public Life and was one of the student leaders who organized the vigil. It was these two groups who were looking for students to take the lead and organize an event that promoted immigration reform. Reyes and fellow senior, Margarita Vargas, answered the call.
“I got on board with it because I’m really passionate about the multiple faces of social justice,” Vargas said.
Reyes explained his interest in immigration reform stems from his past and own status as an immigrant. As a Cuban immigrant he was able to achieve a privileged status in the current immigration system by seeking political asylum from the Cuban communist regime. This enhanced status allowed Reyes to become a U.S. citizen within one year.
“I want to see those options available to other people,” Reyes said. “I don’t think there is any difference in leaving your home country because of political reasons rather than economic reasons where you cannot feed your family. I think if anything that’s more of an imperative to leave your country if you cannot feed your family.”
Vargas currently works with sociologist professor Greg Prieto to promote immigration reform among USD student organizations. Through this promotion, they raise awareness of events such as the vigil held on Sept. 25 and a march for immigration reform that took place on Oct. 5.
On June 27 the U.S. Senate passed bill, S. 744, which promised drastic reformation to the U.S. immigration law by ramping up border security while simultaneously allowing paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill has stalled in the House of Representatives and lost momentum.
With the media focusing on the Syrian conflict and the government shutdown, immigration reform has fallen out of the spotlight. “It’s really hard to get people to care about an issue that’s been taken off the table because of what happened in Syria and what’s happening right now with the government shutdown,” Vargas said.
The vigil and prayer service were just the latest efforts by Catholic universities across the country trying to bring immigration reform back into mainstream news. According to Reyes, the movement started with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when they sent a joint letter to Congress stating that immigration reform is an important issue to the Catholic community.
In July, Catholic university presidents, including USD president Mary Lyons, continued this message by sending a letter to Congress which emphasized the importance of comprehensive immigration reform.
“This vigil was meant to show the government that we do care about it, that we do want comprehensive immigration reform,” Vargas said.
As a part of the prayer service and vigil, student speakers were presented to offer a more humanizing approach to understanding immigration reform.
“We speak of immigration as in terms of politics and policy and legal/illegal,” Reyes said. “We speak on those terms but we forget the faces behind this issue; the people who are actually affected by this. We need to make it more of a human rights issue rather than a political issue.”
Attempts at immigration reform follow suit with recent trends to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. In 2011 California governor Jerry Brown signed the Dream Act, which assists undocumented students to achieve a college education. In 2012 President Obama issued an executive order which launched a program titled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA allows undocumented immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. as children, two years to work without facing possible deportation. However, DACA does not create a path for citizenship or grant residency.
Efforts such as the vigil and prayer service held at USD are attempts to bring personal faith in line with immigration reform.
“We hear a lot about the issue of immigration reform, but we almost never connect it to our personal faith and to our prayer lives,” Reyes said. “A candlelight vigil really centers people in their own prayer life and their own self to think about those who are affected by immigration reform.”