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Bishop to lawmakers: Immigrants have God-given rights

Rallies and marches in Rogers, Little Rock call for reform of immigration policy

Published: October 19, 2013         
Dwain Hebda
Marchers shout slogans at the corner of Chester Street and Capitol Avenue in Little Rock Oct. 12. The multi-racial crowd of about 600 marched to the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in support of immigration reform.

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor sent a stern message to lawmakers from Little Rock to Washington D.C., on the manner in which immigrants must be afforded their God-given rights.

Speaking from the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol during the Oct. 12 Southerners Unified for Dignity & Reform rally, Bishop Taylor said governments have no right to unreasonably impede immigrants striving for a better life.

“National borders are at the service of the common good of both nations that share that border — not just the perceived self-interest of the more powerful of the two,” he said.

“People who come to this country fleeing extreme poverty or oppression, do so exercising their fundamental right to life because the right to life includes the right of access to the necessities of life. Moreover, parents are obligated to provide for their children, so if they are unable to do so in their place of origin, they have the right — and sometimes the obligation — to move to where they will be able to secure the necessities of life. 

The bishop’s remarks, delivered in Spanish and English to a racially diverse crowd of about 600, rang out into the clear October afternoon. Behind him people from Hispanic advocacy groups to labor organizations held banners, providing a suitable backdrop for his remarks.

“Scripture generally doesn’t condone the breaking of laws, but it is a sin to obey an unjust law and beyond a certain point, unjust laws lose their binding force,” he said. “Moreover, unjust laws undermine respect for the rule of law far more than violating unjust laws does — we saw that in the struggle for civil rights.”

A week before, Oct. 5, about 100 gathered in Rogers for a similar march and rally. For both marches, participants were asked to wear white and to carry U.S. and Arkansas flags over flags of other nations of origin to reinforce an underlying message that all attending are Americans. The exception to this was clergy, whom Bishop Taylor encouraged to wear clerical attire to leave no doubt that the Catholic Church in Arkansas stood with the immigrant community.

About an hour before the Little Rock rally, groups of demonstrators marched to a cacophony of slogans from Dickey Stephens Park in North Little Rock and the campus of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, to the intersection of Chester Street and Capitol Avenue. From there, the co-mingled retinue of Latino, Anglo, African-American, Asian, Catholic, Protestant, young and old marched, shouted, sang and even danced their way to the capitol steps, their approach amplified by dozens of bullhorns.

The sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith were among the throng, proudly carrying placards to identify their order.

“The bishop’s presence is an example for all to follow,” said Sister Michaela Marie Boucaud, OSB. “He invites us and we’re here.”

The bishop’s invitation aside, the sisters were also there in support of the growing Hispanic population with whom they work closely back home.

“We have a lot of experience with the people in Fort Smith,” said Sister Elise Forst, OSB. “We work with people who are the heads of their families and see the hardships they deal with. We know these people well and we’re here to make a difference.”

Organizer Mireya Reith, executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition and a member of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, said the motivation to come to Little Rock was its central location and to make a statement at the seat of state government. She said the Little Rock and Rogers events were among a string of similar marches and demonstrations held in 165 cities and 40 states in October.

The message of the march, Reith said, was to show Arkansas’ solidarity with the rest of the nation in demanding meaningful immigration reform in 2013 and to shine a light on the vocal and motivated voting bloc that is the Hispanic electorate, ready to bring about change at the polls.

Monica Hernandez, regional coordinator for Southeast Immigrant Rights Network, which sponsored the Little Rock march in conjunction with its regional conference Oct. 11-13, said Arkansas rates a “B” on its legislative record concerning immigrants at the state level, in large part because of the reputation of the Catholic community.

“The role the bishop has played in creating a welcoming community is something we want to see in other parts of the south,” she said. “Religious leaders who are vocal and take a stand ultimately set the tone. We are very grateful and honored to have Bishop Taylor.”

Bishop Taylor was unable to attend the Oct. 5 march in Rogers, but other clergy and Catholics donned rain gear and carried umbrellas, posters and American flags for a half-mile march downtown.

“This helps people become aware that they need to act and get together to support this, especially children need to get involved,” said Father Juan Manjarrez, associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Rogers. “It tells Congress that we are fighting.”

Despite a Senate-supported immigration bill’s limbo in the U.S. House of Representatives, supporters believe the battle for justice for the voiceless in the country is not over and there are still many yet to convince and educate on the issue.

“We want to demonstrate that Arkansans stand unified both within our state and with the nation in desiring comprehensive immigration reform this year and to celebrate the contributions of immigrants in the state of Arkansas,” Reith said. “And we want to demonstrate to all four of our Arkansas congressmen that we are prepared to continue to engage them and there is a strong demand for them to act quickly until immigration reform is achieved for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country and to encourage them to keep families together.”

The Rogers march took place on the heels of the introduction Oct. 2 of the bipartisan House Border Security Results Act (H.R. 1417), which provides a roadmap to citizenship for most immigrants living and working in the United States without papers.

“While we are pleased that some members of the House of Representatives are trying to move the conversation of immigration policy change forward,” said Jose Luis Aguayo, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, “we know that until there is a moratorium on deportations and real engagement by both parties in Congress on immigration policy reform that is broad and inclusive of all immigrants, the broken system will not be resolved.”

Rogers is home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the state and to Congressman Steve Womack, making it a natural choice for a rally. Despite this, Al “Papa Rap” Lopez, co-chairman of OneCommunity, who has lived in northwest Arkansas since 1994, believes there are still some people who are afraid of the changes.

“One of the messages is that we are one community,” Lopez said, “and this is about reaching out and teaching the whole community that we are missing out on an opportunity if we don’t make that connection and work together. Anybody that cannot accept that wave of change will go under. We can be an example to the rest of the country if we work as a total community.”

Dwain Hebda and Alesia Schaefer contributed to this article.

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