Prayers and activism for citizenship


In the middle of a Sunday afternoon event called "A Prayer for Citizenship" in the gymnasium of St. Monica's Catholic Church, 16 year-old Cynthia Torres approaches the microphone and faces an overflow crowd of 600 people. Congresswoman Susan Brooks sits to Torres' right. Torres begins to speak, explaining that she grew up in Indianapolis and is a student at George Washington High School. Then she pauses and takes a deep breath. "When I was 12, my mother was deported," she says.

Torres tries to begin her next sentence, but can't quite get the words out. Tears well up in her eyes. She gulps and starts in again. "No twelve year-old should have to care for her three year-old and six year-old siblings. But I was all we had.

"I pray that the Congresswoman will make the right choice and support a pathway to citizenship that supports family values. I don't want anyone else to have this pain and suffering."

The rest of the afternoon's agenda is no less subtle. Torres was preceded at the podium by two Catholic priests, who cite to Brooks the Biblical mandate to be welcoming to the stranger in our midst. Brooks faces a wall decorated with U.S. flag-themed banners reading, "Keep Us United." The co-masters of ceremonies are Rolando Mendoza, Sr., speaking in Spanish, and teenage Rolando Mendoza, Jr., speaking in English. Both, they disclose to Brooks and the gathered crowd, are undocumented immigrants.

Today's goal is for Brooks to publicly pledge support for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, known as H.R. 15. The bill would allow the Mendozas, Cynthia Torres, and the 11 million-plus other undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to get official residency, to work legally, and to move toward a day when they will earn full citizenship. At the end of the program, Brooks, a first-term Republican, will be invited to respond. Everyone in attendance holds a small battery-operated candle, which they are instructed to light only if Brooks agrees to support a path to citizenship. The Congresswoman sits up front alone, with the eyes of hundreds trained directly on her. It is an agenda designed to create tension. The design is being realized.

In fact, it is not clear at first why Brooks would agree to attend such a presentation at all. She represents the 5th Congressional District, which is dominated by the affluent suburbs north and north-east of Indianapolis' center. Her statements on immigration have focused on bolstering the country's borders, not welcoming the undocumented in our midst. But when Brooks finally takes the microphone to respond, she points out that this setting is a familiar one for her. She and her family have been members of St. Monica's parish for decades. The invitation to attend today was issued in part by her own pastor, the same priest who had started the agenda by delivering a strongly pro-immigrant invocation.

Yet the Latino-dominated crowd may not be all that familiar to Brooks. The parish was much more homogenous when she and her family joined. Since then, its Latino membership has swelled and multiple Spanish-language masses have been added to the weekend schedule. The world around Susan Brooks has shifted in recent years, as it has for all Americans. One of every 20 Indiana residents is foreign-born, with almost half of those coming from Latin America. By 2050, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is expected to comprise 29 percent of the population — which puts Susan Brooks in a tough spot. On one hand, anyone in the business of winning elections ignores such obvious demographic trends at their peril. Last year, the Republican National Committee issued recommendations from its "Growth and Opportunity Project" that highlighted the party's need to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. One of the report's co-chairmen, Ari Fleischer, who served as White House spokesperson during the George W. Bush presidency, cited the meager 27 percent share of the Hispanic vote earned by Mitt Romney in the 2012 election as "a clear two-by-four to the head" to the Republican Party. At a local level, Brooks is well aware that the business community, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Eli Lilly and Co., and other traditional Republican supporters favor H.R. 15. A 2013 poll for the Public Religion Research Institute showed two-thirds of Hoosiers support a path to legal citizenship.

Read our election guide interview with then Candidate Susan Brooks.

Yet such surveys pull in a much broader group of respondents than the population of likely GOP voters in an off-year Congressional primary, where conservative activists carry more influence than the Chamber of Commerce. Just ask former Senator Richard Lugar, sent into unplanned retirement in 2012 by Indiana primary voters who chose his Tea Party-backed opponent, Richard Mourdock. Moudock's successful campaign was launched with an attack on Lugar for supporting the DREAM Act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

For the pro-citizenship activists pushing Brooks to risk such a challenge, there is some helpful precedent. When U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly was a Democrat member of the House of Representatives, he voted against the DREAM Act that helped sink Lugar. Donnelly actively promoted his anti-immigrant positions when successfully campaigning to defeat Mourdock and win Lugar's seat in 2012. But, soon after Donnelly's victory, immigration reform activists held prayer vigils outside the new Senator's office and paraded in downtown Indianapolis under banners reading "¡Todos Somos Americanos!" (We Are All Americans). Phone banks were arranged for pro-citizenship Hoosiers to call Donnelly's office. Business and religious leaders met with Donnelly individually, pressing for his support for H.R. 15. Finally, at the June roll call, Donnelly joined 67 other senators in supporting the bill. Indiana's new senator had come over to the side of immigration reform.

So has Rep. Jeff Denham, like Susan Brooks, a Republican member of the House. In his district in northern California, Denham sat through church-based immigration reform forums similar in format to the Indianapolis event. Then, in October, Denham announced that he would join 185 Democrat House members who support H.R. 15. Two other House Republicans have since also signed on as co-sponsors, and immigration reform activists say there are two dozen more House Republicans who have publicly supported a pathway to citizenship. However, House Speaker John Boehner has not brought H.R. 15 to a vote. Last week, he presented a one-page document summarizing Republican principles on immigration. The statement prioritizes border security and includes no clear pathway to citizenship for adults, but does include support citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.   

The Stranger Must Be Welcomed

The most powerful force behind the local and national campaign for citizenship is the Roman Catholic Church. The Prayer for Citizenship event in Indianapolis was part of a national Catholic "Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform." The agenda and the crowd that day were dominated by members of local Catholic parishes. And one of the campaign's most visible local supporters is Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin. Tobin is a large man, with a ruddy complexion and girth that suggests a retired offensive tackle more than a parish priest. The oldest of 13 children and raised in Detroit, he speaks five languages and came to his post in Indianapolis from a prestigious position in Rome, where he held the church's No. 2 position for religious life.

Tobin has no trouble with the Archdiocese calling on government leaders to change current immigration law. He was part of a delegation to visit Donnelly in April of 2013 when the new Senator was still on record opposing a path to citizenship for undocumented youth and adults. Tobin told Donnelly, a Roman Catholic and Notre Dame graduate, that he assumed the senator was Native American. No, Donnelly replied, his background was Irish-American. "Mine too," Tobin said. "So you must know a little something about immigration!"

Tobin's point was that U.S. Catholics have a special obligation to embrace the stranger in our community. "In this country, except for Native American Catholics, every one of us is a child or grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants," Tobin says. "My grandparents lived with the 'Irish Need Not Apply' signs, and that is still very ingrained in the memory of my family. If we are uncaring about the new Irish in our midst — the Hispanics, the Africans, the Asians — on the day of judgment, it won't be them who condemn us. It will be our grandparents."

Tobin's boss endorses that message. Pope Francis has famously labeled unfettered capitalism "a new tyranny," condemned the "idolatry of money," and denounced structural inequality that sentences so many millions of the world's citizens to abject poverty. The first-ever Latin American pope has championed the rights of immigrants, invoking his own family's struggles in emigrating from Italy to Argentina. This social justice theology is firmly rooted in Catholic tradition, a legacy often obscured by the church's recent focus on issues like contraception and abortion. Francis' statements echo those of his predecessors as far back as Pope Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) included a call for living wages in the then-new industrial society. Succeeding Popes issued their own official embrace of workers' rights to organize into unions and receive state assistance when necessary. Even the noted conservative Benedict XVI, Francis' immediate predecessor, explicitly reaffirmed the right to a just wage.

In the U.S., the voice of the early 20th century minimum wage movement was a Catholic priest and economist John Ryan. Catholic parishes operated over 100 "labor schools" in the basements of urban immigrant churches, and so-called "labor priests" mentored the organizers of unions at all levels, Catholic priests played a particularly significant role in the Cesar Chavez-led United Farm Workers movement. Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching" still delivers a message that endorses fair wages and the right to form unions.

Predictably, giving voice to these positions attracts some political push-back. Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist and Fox News' Andy Shaw said Francis "will prove to be a disaster for the Catholic Church." Archbishop Tobin says his pro-citizenship advocacy attracts more angry letters to the archdiocese newspaper, The Criterion, than anything else he does. But Tobin says he sees no option but to follow the Biblical directives: The poor must be fed, the stranger must be welcomed, and justice must be fought for. "As a disciple of Christ," he says. "The Gospel is not just one datum among many, it represents the determining value."

Loving Our Neighbors

Isaias Guerrero greets me at the door of the converted near-westside convent that the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, IndyCAN, shares with St. Anthony and Holy Trinity parishes. Guerrero leads me up a narrow staircase and past a six-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary. A snake is depicted below her bare feet, symbolizing the crushing of the serpent devil prophesied in Genesis.

For Guerrero, the coordinator of the immigration justice campaign for IndyCAN and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, immigration law is not an abstraction. A thin young man with dark curly hair and moustache, Guerrero was 15 years old when his father lost his job in Colombia. Suddenly, Guerrero found himself one of just five Latinos in Greenwood High School—and without legal permanent residency. In 2012, President Barack Obama used an executive order to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows Guerrero and others to get temporary work permits and drivers' licenses. But DACA does not provide any permanent status, nor does it create any route to citizenship.

Check out past coverage of IndyCAN's work

IndyCAN includes over 20 Indianapolis congregations from different Christian denominations. In addition to the citizenship campaign, it embraces issues like increased public transportation and ex-felon reentry opportunities. IndyCAN is affiliated with the PICO National Network (People Improving Communities Through Organizing), founded in 1972 by Father John Baumann, a Jesuit priest trained in the Saul Alinsky community organizing model. In Indianapolis, the manifestation of that approach has included a series of clergy-packed community events in churches, a business-oriented briefing hosted by Eli Lilly and Company, and demonstrations and vigils calling out individual lawmakers. "At the Statehouse, you mostly see people getting paid to represent the views of corporations," Guerrero says. "You do not see people who are poor. We are out to change that."

In December, I visited an IndyCAN organizational meeting held in a large classroom of St. Gabriel's school. After an impassioned bilingual opening prayer, African American pastors and residents talk about mass transit problems and advocacy plans, then Latino residents deliver an update on the citizenship campaign. Later in the meeting, a middle-aged white man in a blue oxford shirt and khakis joins Guerrero at the front of the room, leading a discussion of voter registration and turnout in the next election cycle. "We only have as much justice as we have the power to compel," he says to the group. "So we need to create the power ourselves."

It is somewhat jarring to hear the philosophy of radical grassroots organizing delivered by someone who looks like a suburban banker. In fact, Ed Witulski does work as an underwriter for PNC Bank. But he is also a cradle Catholic who found his commitment re-energized five years ago while participating in the "Just Faith" program that calls for Catholics to embrace the roles of advocates for justice. Now he leads his parish's social justice committee and adheres faithfully to the tenets of Catholic social teaching. He thinks another Catholic will eventually do so as well. "I think Susan Brooks wants to do the right thing," Witulski says. "I think Susan Brooks is praying for IndyCAN to change the minds of her voters."

Sure enough, as soon as she got the chance to respond at the September event at St. Monica's, Brooks did say that she was pulling in divine consultation on the issue. "I am discerning and praying about how to fix the system," she said. But she did not commit to support H.R. 15, nor did she support a clear path to citizenship for undocumented residents.

IndyCAN and the Archdiocese kept up the pressure. In November, several dozen people marched the 48 miles from St. Monica's to Brooks' office in Anderson, carrying a "Pilgrimage for Citizenship" banner. They stopped at multiple churches along the way, and held prayer services outside a county jail that detains immigrants on the way to deportation.

Jesus Ramirez was one of the marchers, and he shared his own story with Brooks and with church groups along the route. Ramirez was born in Mexico and is now a 16 year-old student at Perry Meridian High School. This fall, Ramirez fasted 23 days as part of a national Fast for Families to gain attention to the suffering of undocumented persons. "I stopped (my fast) only when I felt pretty sure that one more day would put me in the hospital," he says. During the time he abstained from food, Ramirez sat in the high school cafeteria drinking only water while his classmates ate their lunches. Soon, 32 of his classmates decided to show their solidarity by joining in Ramirez's fast for a day.

Brooks met with Ramirez and the other marchers, but did not change her mind. In response to a request for comment for this article, Brooks' spokesperson, Alex Damron, said, "Congresswoman Brooks favors a step-by-step approach to the immigration discussion that allows us to give various complicated topics the attention they deserve. Along with the debate surrounding a pathway to citizenship, we must pay attention to a number of other pressing issues including border security, our legal immigration system and our temporary worker programs."

Nearly four months after the Prayer for Citizenship event, I reconnected with the co-masters of ceremonies that day, Rolando Mendoza Senior and Junior. Their family of five came to Indianapolis from Oaxaca, Mexico in June of 2002. They arrived in town on a Sunday and attended Mass the same day at St. Gabriel's. The priest asked for any visitors to stand and be welcomed, and the congregation prayed over the Mendozas. They have been active members of the parish ever since.

For seven years, the elder Mendoza worked in an industrial bakery in Hendricks County, driving a forklift and doing maintenance. It was a good job, but in early 2013 Mendoza was abruptly fired for not having legal status, a situation he is convinced the company had known since the day he was hired. He has since found work at a recycling plant, but his pay is far less.

The younger Mendoza attended Indianapolis Public Schools, graduating sixth in his class at Crispus Attucks High School. His dream to attend Indiana University was made financially impossible by the 2011 law that denies him access to in-state tuition. But his excellent record earned him scholarships to the University of Indianapolis, where he is majoring in biology and business, and planning on becoming an optometrist. Both Mendozas are enthusiastic participants in IndyCAN.

"It is not just a problem for us, it is a problem for 11 million people," Mendoza, Sr. says. "Even though I was talking about my situation and my feelings (at St. Monica's), I was in a way talking about everyone else in the same situation." His son nods, and says he got a good vibe from Brooks, despite her reluctance to sign on to a pathway to citizenship that day. Like Ed Witulski, the Mendozas believe she wants to do the right thing for undocumented families. So they push on.

"There is still sometimes a lack of knowledge, even in religious communities," says Rolando Mendoza, Sr. "Sometimes we forget that it is not enough just to go to church. We are told to love our neighbor as we love ourselves." n