By Cindy George, Houston Chronicle
Houston clergy joined dozens of immigration reform supporters Wednesday to call for Congress to reject legislation that would permit tougher penalties and enforcement for an illegal presence in the United States.
At a news conference organized by The Metropolitan Organization, leaders also urged those who oppose the SAFE Act to contact their representatives in Congress and ask for comprehensive immigration reform.
This spring, a bipartisan group of senators proposed the first major overhaul of U.S. immigration policy since 1986.
The Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, backed by House Republicans, would allow state and local governments to draft immigration laws that did not conflict with federal statutes. The bill, approved by the House Judiciary Committee this summer, also gives state and local law enforcement agencies more power to arrest and charge immigrants for overstaying visas or entering the country illegally while shifting a visa overstay from a civil to a criminal matter.
‘We can do better’
Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Evangelical Lutheran Church‘s Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod said the SAFE Act contradicts the principles local faith leaders established in 2008. Those include family unity, protection of workers, a viable path to citizenship and reform of deportation procedures to honor human rights.
“It allows for unlimited detention in some instances without federal oversight, it encourages more racial profiling, it denies access to justice and it criminalizes anyone offering Good Samaritan assistance to those who lack immigration status,” Rinehart said. “We can do better than this.”
But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies – a Washington, D.C.-based research institute – said The Metropolitan Organization’s interpretation of SAFE is “an excuse to oppose something that is going to assist in immigration enforcement” to the benefit of public safety and national security.
“The objective is to make it easier for the people who are causing the most problems and are here illegally to be removed,” Vaughan said. “It improves the partnerships between federal immigration enforcement agencies … and local law enforcement organizations who are on the front lines in addressing some of the crime.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security‘s Office of Immigration Statistics, roughly 11.5 million undocumented immigrants were in the United States in January 2011, and 1.8 million of them resided in Texas. Other estimates put the number of unauthorized residents in the Houston area at more than 500,000.
Concern for the young
SAFE opponents are concerned that young people who have been granted deferred action as childhood arrivals by President Barack Obama under criteria in the proposed DREAM Act could face arrest and deportation. One of those who might become vulnerable is 18-year-old Diana Cinco, a Houston high school senior who arrived here from El Salvador at the age of 7, recently obtained her driver’s license and hopes to attend the University of Houston next fall.
“Our stories are just beginning,” Cinco said in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in the Museum District. “Don’t do away with deferred action. Don’t take away the hopes and dreams or the future from us. We are part of the future of the United States.”