ROCHESTER — Hundreds of people demonstrated support for immigrants during a May 23 mini-pilgrimage and interfaith prayer vigil that included hearing from those touched by the immigration issue and discussing how to make their voices heard as Congress considers immigration-reform bills.
The vigil coincided with local organization Faith & Action’s “A Day of a Thousand Conversations” initiative, which encouraged western New Yorkers to talk to their families, neighbors, colleagues and state legislators about comprehensive immigration reform between the sunsets of May 23-24. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants campaign also designated the week of May 20-26 as a week of “a million prayers” for comprehensive immigration reform.
“I think we all know why this is important. This is about people’s lives,” Brigit Hurley, parish social-ministry coordinator for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center, said to those gathered at the vigil.
The vigil began at the First Universalist Church of Rochester on Clinton Avenue, where people gathered to listen to local religious leaders explain their own faith traditions’ positions on immigration.
The Torah and Jewish teachings direct Jews to be advocates on behalf of immigrants and immigration and on behalf of those seeking better lives and protection from harm, noted Rabbi Alan Katz of Brighton’s Temple Sinai.
“Muhammad had to flee for his life, he was a refugee,” added Dr. Aly Nahas, a founding member of the Islamic Center of Rochester and a signatory of Rochester’s 2003 Muslim-Catholic Agreement of Understanding and Mutual Cooperation.
Jesus also was a refugee, noted Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
“We speak out of an awareness of the lessons taught by Jesus, whose family had to flee their homeland. We are inspired by his example of reaching out, whether to his own people or to foreigners. The words and works of Jesus are for us to fulfill in our own time,” Bishop Clark said.
“As people of faith we recognize that all of us are strangers in a foreign land, all of us are immigrants,” added the Rev. Richard Myers, president of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
After learning about the past and the migrant roots of their faith traditions, vigil participants processed outside and across the street to Washington Square Park, where they learned more about the challenges facing today’s immigrants. Jim Ochterski, agriculture economic development specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County, described some of the ways area farmers rely on immigrant workers.
“Right now, it’s 6 o’clock this May evening, and … I’m willing to bet that right now, within 50 miles of where we’re standing, there’s an immigrant worker that’s kneeling down next to a female cow and helping that cow to give birth,” Ochterski said.
At that moment migrant farm workers probably also were milking dairy cows, harvesting asparagus and performing the back-breaking task of planting cabbage seedlings, Ochterski said.
“Farmers tell me every day how important these workers are. They couldn’t do this work without immigrant workers, so every time you partake of food, think about the hands that handled it,” he said.
Mexican immigrant Librada Paz came to the United States nearly 20 years ago as a teenager and obtained legal status two years later. Living in the United States gave her the opportunity to go to high school and earn a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, opportunities she wouldn’t have had if she stayed in Mexico, she said.
“I’m very proud that I had that chance. Those immigrants should have that right, too. Why not give them a chance, so that they have better chances and more choices?” she asked tearfully.
Genesee County resident Christine Rodriguez, 28, described how she feels every time her fiance, an undocumented Mexican worker, goes to work at a cabbage farm in Batavia.
“After five years of being together, I’m terrified that one day he’s just not going to come home from work,” Rodriguez said, noting that she and her fiance aren’t able to even go to the store or the beach together for fear that he will be detained and deported.
“People ask why he doesn’t just become legalized and get his papers, but it’s not that easy. It would mean he’d have to go back to Mexico for five to 10 years,” Rodriguez added.
After praying for Rodriguez, vigil participants processed across the street and into St. Mary Church, where Hurley told them what they can do to affect immigrants’ futures. Her comments came on the heels of the U.S. Senate’s nearly daylong consideration of S. 1348, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act.
Hurley encouraged people to let their elected representatives know they want legislation that provides justice for those trying to immigrate legally; a viable path to earned citizenship for currently undocumented workers; a temporary-worker program that protects the rights of workers; a family-based immigration reform; and restoration of due-process protections and policies which address the root causes of migration.
“There is consensus among the Congress that this issue must be passed this summer,” Hurley said. “I feel like this is a unique opportunity because the debate is not necessarily split along partisan lines. I think that means we have more impact as voters.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the U.S. bishops’ principles for comprehensive immigration reform, visit www.justiceforimmigrants.org.