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Ethics & Religion
April 12, 2006
Column #1,285
"We Are A Nation of Immigrants"
by Michael J. McManus
     I see significant parallels of the million Hispanics who joyfully marched this week for the opportunity to become U.S. citizens with the striving of black Americans to gain the civil rights and opportunities white Americans took for granted 40-50 years ago.

     Both were also similar to the exultant joy I witnessed of East Germans and
Czechoslovakians in 1989 at the time the Berlin Wall was torn down.

     Fear was the dominant emotion of all three groups before they made their debut by the tens of thousands in public marches.  And in each case, local Christian leaders encouraged mass protests which gave people courage that overcame their fear enough to demand reforms.

     Before the 1955 bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King  in Montgomery, Alabama, where I lived as a boy, Negroes (as they then called themselves) were afraid to make demands until Rosa Parks courageously refused to move to the back of the bus. They feared losing their
jobs for being considered "uppity" by whites, until Rev. King, a 26-year-old local pastor, urged Negroes to boycott the city's buses.

     Thousands stopped riding buses, and walked miles to work every day for more than a year.  Few maids, janitors or construction workers had cars in those days. And those who did, stopped to pick up brothers and sisters in exultant defiance of the white establishment. The bus company went into near bankruptcy until it removed the racial line from its buses. For the first time in America, black people felt empowered to seek other civil rights. 

     But they did so with peaceful, mass protests, demanding the right to vote in Selma, for example. Though local white authorities sometimes responded violently, as in Selma, the dignified, peaceful demands of Negroes persuaded white American political leaders, such as President Lyndon Johnson, to pass laws guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race.

     Similarly, 11 million Hispanics who came to America illegally, were uninvolved
politically, fearing not only the loss of their jobs but deportation. Then the House passed a bill that would make all 11 million felons, subject to mass deportation.  

     The Catholic Church responded. In Los Angeles Rev. Michael Kennedy of La Placita Catholic Church, prepared a PowerPoint presentation on the House bill for his church and gave it to unions and immigrant rights groups to do the same. He organized fasting and prayer vigils, and
urged people to attend Sunday's rally. More than 500,000 participated.

     In Washington, dozens of churches help mobilize Hispanic members to participate in a rally on the mall that attracted about 300,000 people. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the crowd in Spanish and English: "We are a nation of immigrants. Let us not now turn inward after all these centuries.

     "We are all God's children, all brothers and sisters in His one human family. Respect for the dignity of every human person calls us to protect the human rights of the newcomers and the poor."

     Spanish radio stations urged Latinos to carry American flags, not Mexican flags which irritated opponents. As one organizer put it, "We decided not to be invisible anymore."

     Monzerrat Macias, 15, came to the rally with her Mexican mother and with siblings born here. Her goal was "to help our people to get the legalization they deserve. We deserve to be here. We work hard. We are immigrants, not terrorists," she told the Washington Post.

     Hispanics are now 14 percent of the population, outnumbering blacks.  However, only 8 percent of voters in the Presidential election were Latino. There was a new sense of political power in the crowds which chanted, "Hoy, marchamos. Manana, votamos." Today we march.
Tomorrow we vote." And many voters were registered.

     Before the Berlin Wall fell, Catholics from the Pope down organized protests first in Poland, then in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Lutheran pastors led marches in Leipzig and East Berlin. I joined one in Leipzig to the Stazi headquarters of secret police, where demonstrators demanded access to their files used to terrorize citizens into silence.

     I believe one element of the House bill should become law   the building of a giant fence along the Mexican border, to tighten illegal emigration. However, the felonizing of illegal immigrants should give way to the Senate version of the bill that would grant citizenship to those who learn English, pay a fine and who have no criminal convictions.

     Jesus outlined the church's position on the powerless: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

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