The Virginian-Pilot Column: Churches, leaders must be open on immigration

By Antipas Harris

AS A PASTOR and educator of young adults, I’ve been increasingly worried about the mass exodus of young people from the church. But the reason they give concerns me more: They can’t support the anti-immigrant or xenophobic sentiments that conservatives often express in the name of religion.

Even I’m shocked when my otherwise good-hearted evangelical friends justify the Trump administration’s cruel family-separation policies by saying that we need “law and order” or advocate deporting hard-working undocumented immigrants because they didn’t come here the “right way.” As an African American, it is highly offensive to me when people use “law and order” to justify a lack of compassion for human suffering, given the 19th century laws that supported the dehumanization of African Americans in this country.

Fortunately, it seems that most Americans agree that the administration’s immigration policies are wrong. Two-thirds of Americans objected to policies that took children from their parents’ arms and made them sleep in cages. This outrage was reflected in the midterm results, which saw Democrats flipping 43 congressional seats, including three in Virginia. Here in Virginia’s Second Congressional District, voters felt so strongly about supporting justice for immigrants that they rejected anti-immigrant Republican messaging that tried to link Democrat candidate Elaine Luria to an increase in immigrant crime. We, too, flipped red to blue, and Republican Congressman Scott Taylor is now out of a job.

Americans are good-hearted people, so it tracks that being pro-immigrant is the politically smart move. In particular, though, our leaders must start paying attention to the values of younger voters. An estimated 31 percent of people ages 18 to 29 voted in the midterm elections, up from 21 percent in 2014, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. And according to Pew, three quarters of millennials say that immigration strengthens the country. These young people reject many of the Trump administration’s morally repugnant policies toward immigrants, whether it’s ending protections for Virginia’s more than 30,500 DACA-eligible immigrants, or the proposed “public charge” rule that would block millions of legal immigrants who are already in the United States from obtaining citizenship if they used any public benefits.

All of this holds for the 2nd District, where the population continues to grow more diverse, younger and open-minded. In the past two years alone, we added more than 3,000 Hispanic and Asian voters while the share of white voters declined by 0.9 percent, according to a new analysis by New American Economy. In our district, Hispanics are younger on average than the white population, with a median age of 26.4 compared with 39, respectively.

These voters know what immigrants bring to our community and economy. Through my past work consulting at Los Pentecostales de Norfolk, I have witnessed firsthand the hard-working immigrant population in our district. According to New American Economy, nearly 71 percent of them are of prime working age and are the backbone of our agriculture, construction and manufacturing industries. More than 2,100 have started their own businesses, creating jobs and providing necessary services to our community. And with $1.5 billion in spending power, they invest back into our shared hometown.

Congresswoman-elect Elaine Luria listened to voters who understand how much good immigrants bring to our communities. She understands that both our democracy and the survival of our faith-based institutions depend on relating to all the voters in our district, especially our young people. On Jan. 3, we will celebrate her swearing-in as our new congressional representative. Many of us hope she will help pass some immigration laws that can establish common-sense order and fairness.

As a man of faith, my top concern is always what it means to love, to be kind and to be hospitable. And I believe that human decency demands a greater moral sensibility than the legacy of human cruelty that our promising country (which I love) is currently perpetuating.

Accordingly, just as this election proved that we have the power to create change at the ballot box, it also showed us that we can — and should — be more open with our hearts of compassion and moral integrity.

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About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…