by Francisco Baires, member of CU-IF and Community Programs Director at the University YMCA
Several local religious congregations will be holding various faith-based and immigration-themed events throughout the month of October in what is sure to be an inspiring series of local community gatherings. The Allies of Faith is an interfaith coalition of local congregations within the CU-Immigration Forum that is working on making our community a welcoming and loving space for all our neighbors, regardless of their country of origin, or immigration status. In June, the Allies of Faith decided that they would declare October as “Immigrant Justice Month” and they began planning events that will take place throughout the month. But how did these congregations come to work on this together? Why now? I work at the University YMCA at the University of Illinois, where I am the Community Programs Director, which is a fancy name for a Community Organizer. I am extremely blessed to work on local immigration issues with an AMAZING group of local community leaders and volunteers, some of which make up the Immigration Forum: Allies of Faith. I am also lucky to work with a great group of UI students known as La Colectiva. These volunteers, community leaders and dedicated students, work together as an alliance of sorts, an alliance dedicated to the fight for a genuine “Liberty and Justice for All.” Basically, the CU-Immigration Forum is a group of immigrants, students, clergy, service providers, labor union representatives, residents and community organizations concerned about the progress and plight of immigrants in the Champaign County community. The connection between the students of La Colectiva and the Immigration Forum goes back to the beginnings of “The Forum.” La Colectiva alum, and original founding member of The Forum, Jesse Hoyt, traces the relationship back as follows: “In the Spring of 2009, in pairing up with the University YMCA, La Colectiva members began a campaign of relational meetings with leaders in the community to find out the best way that undocumented students and their allies could organize around issues that mattered to the larger immigrant community. After several months of relational meetings it became clear that there were leaders that wanted to continually work to help the immigrant community as well as tackle issues that were destroying immigrant families. Through the leadership of La Colectiva, the University YMCA and key community leaders we helped assemble the Immigration Forum which represented a diverse group of advocates.” These advocates meet regularly to discuss immigration-related issues and events in our community and work to: celebrate the diversity and culture that immigrants contribute to our community; educate the public about issues that affect local immigrant communities; advocate for the rights of immigrants and encourage their full participation in civic, cultural, social and political life in our community; promote permanent and positive changes that will improve the quality of life for immigrants in our community; and organize for policies that lead to just and humane treatment to all immigrants that are part of our community. The Immigration Forum’s work on the ground can be framed in its current (offensive) community-building mobilizations. This includes the Allies of Faith, turning October into Immigrant Justice Month as well as the community work being done by The Forum around an “Executive Order” known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). However, the Forum’s work can also be framed around the (defensive) mobilizations against the federal (In)Secure Communities program implemented in Champaign in October of 2010. Of these two, it is preferred to focus on the positive aspects of community building. However, understanding the work of the past might help us understand the work of the present. The Immigration Forum met regularly while our county was active in the (In)Secure Communities program, which at its core led to the tearing apart of local families, the deportations of non-criminal members of our community and the terrorizing of our immigrant brothers and sisters. While (In)Secure Communities was in play here in our county, the Immigration Forum was busy executing the work between bullet points listed above. The Forum did research into the program’s economic cost and negative effects on local communities, it advocated for the immigrants in our communities, it organized around stopping the implementation of the program here in our county and it educated the public about this situation through publishing the findings of it’s research and holding public community forums to address this issue and to promote positive changes in the treatment of all our immigrant brothers and sisters, regardless of their country of origin, the color of their skin, the languages they speak OR their immigration status. In January of this year, Claire Szoke, an original member of The Forum, decided to start reaching out to the local faith communities as potential allies of The Forum. Part of the idea being that the greater community needed to be made aware of what was happening to our immigrant brothers and sisters and local congregations might serve as a space through which this might be done. By February, a small group, including Claire, Jim Holiman and Kris Light Branaman started to organize around this effort and decided to plan a conversation over breakfast to acquaint clergy of all denominations and faiths on the issues facing immigrants in this community and how their congregations can be involved. On March 8, our county stopped working on behalf of federal immigration officials and we opted out of the federal (In)Secure Communities program. Yes, those who fought for it celebrated this community victory. But also of importance is that this victory was a catalyst for the Immigration Forum to move forward from a defensive posture of defending our communities from a heinous incarceration and deportation program, to an offensive one focused on community building. And by June, not only had the Allies of Faith came together as an official working group of The Forum, these Allies also declared this October as Immigrant Justice Month and started planning to make the stated purposes of the Immigration Forum a reality within their communities. We have come together to celebrate the diversity brought to our communities by our immigrant brothers and sisters. And while we enjoy building upon this diversity within our community, let us remember to advocate for the rights of all people, regardless of the color of their skin, the languages they speak, their country of origin, or their immigration status. Why now? As Claire puts it: “Every day we fail to stop dehumanization, we put our own humanity at risk. In an effort to foster greater dialogue about immigration within our own congregations, the Allies of Faith have launched Immigrant Justice Month for this October.” Perhaps the Litany Prayer for Immigration Reform, written by members of the Allies of Faith, sums it up best: “We choose to stand with and assist those who are forced to move from their homelands and seek economic and physical survival elsewhere. Our commitment to a merciful way of life demands that we meet, by direct service and systemic change, the needs of those who suffer. We seek to educate others and ourselves to the underlying causes of migration. We will continue to welcome and assist those who seek hope, home and labor in this country. Amen.” For more on Immigrant Justice Month Events go tohttp://www.universityymca.org/faith_and_justice/
Francisco Baires is the Community Programs Director at the University YMCA at the University of Illinois. He serves as Adviser to La Colectiva and he is the Community Organizer for the the Immigration Forum. He is also the Director of La Linea, a free help-line/referral-service for the local community.