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Justice for our neighbors

Annual UMW Legislative Day advocates for just, humane immigration reform

By Jessica Connor

As immigration reform continues in its heated position at the center of many a political debate, United Methodist Women in South Carolina gathered Feb. 19 for what they do best: Advocate for what Jesus wants.

Hundreds of women from across South Carolina gathered at Epworth Children s Home for the annual UMW Legislative Day, filled with speakers and workshops dedicated to educating women about immigration reform and what they can do to achieve justice for our neighbors.

The UMW have always been about advocacy “ we were about advocacy when advocacy was not cool,  said Linda DuRant, conference UMW president, welcoming the crowd to the gathering. And we have always taken the biblical imperative of ˜who is my neighbor and ˜caring for the least of these very, very seriously. If we don t do it, it might not get done. ¦ If we don t do it, who will? 

In an event co-sponsored by the American Association for University Women and Church Women United, the day featured a keynote from the Rev. Emily Scales Sutton on Justice for our Neighbors,  plus a talk from Carol Barton of UMW Inc. on immigration advocacy. Legislative updates from Ellie Setzer rounded out the event along with workshops from Barton, Dr. Robert Stevens of Charleston County Schools on Preventing Bullying  and Sue Berkowitz of S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center on Women Children and Healthcare. 

Hopefully today we can find more ways to speak for our neighbors,  said Ann Terry of the AAUW.

From misconceptions to truths

Barton shared how the current media frenzy over immigration really began in 2006, when we began seeing the introduction of bills in Congress to make it criminal to be in this country without documents.

In the mid-2000s, there was a wave in the media of demonizing ˜them, ˜those people, that began to feed legislation at the national level that would not only criminalize people without documents, but the people who helped them,  Barton explained.

But going to the Bible, we see countless stories of people who experienced what it was to be a stranger: Joseph, who was trafficked by his brothers; the brothers themselves, who had to become immigrants because of famine; Moses, who was raised in a household as someone from a different tradition; Ruth and Naomi, who went into exile because of hunger; Jesus himself, who was an exile almost from the time he was born.

Barton said Christians hear it over and over throughout all these stories: You must welcome the stranger, the widow, and the orphan “ those who are the most vulnerable, the most excluded. Because you, too, were strangers, you must remember what it means to welcome the stranger. And not just welcome but gleaning “ leave food in fields for those who need it. 

And what Jesus said went ever further: Love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Today, Barton said, it s not always who has documents and who doesn t. Women still face boundaries. There are racial differences involved.

If you close your eyes and imagine an immigrant, it probably isn t a white Canadian coming over our border,  she said, noting the media usually presents images of brown people.

And with the economic instability in our nation, fear over security and loss of jobs only adds to the debate.

We look for people to blame, ways to explain a crisis by finding some scapegoats,  Barton said. ˜They are taking our jobs. ˜They are using our services. 

She countered every misconception “ immigrants supposedly take jobs, use public services and don t pay taxes, are lawbreakers “ with the truth. The number of jobs immigrants are doing is a very small percentage. Immigrants are paying much more in taxes and yet are not able to access many public services like welfare, sometimes healthcare, community college, etc. As for laws, the system is broken, and these people are coming here out of desperation, from trauma or poverty or economic insecurity, to provide for their families.

At the end, the Gospel comes before everything else, and Jesus makes it clear what we must do, she said.

˜What is the Lord requiring of you?

In her keynote remarks, Scales Sutton urged the women to strive for immigration reform.

United Methodist Women, our world, our countries, our communities and our neighbors will know we are Christians by our love,  Scales Sutton implored the crowd after they sang the hymn of the same name. What is the Lord requiring of you? 

Every day, she said, more than 1,000 immigrants are deported from the U.S.

I hope you will begin to put immigration and advocating for just and humane immigration reform on your list of the things the Lord is requiring from you,  Scales Sutton said.

In South Carolina, she said, women can do several things to take steps forward. They can form relationships with immigrant neighbors, creating welcoming environments at churches by hosting meals, health fairs, international days, etc. They can pray for immigrants and their families. They can promote English as second or other language classes. They can visit deportation facilities and jails.

Also, she said, women can support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), previously known as DREAM students “ this ensures children who arrived here undocumented can find some sort of status and get a visa, though there is no pathway to citizenship.

Do something

No matter what is done, the message was clear at UMW Legisla
tive Day: do something to love your neighbor and welcome the stranger.

As S.C. Rep. Ronnie A. Sabb of Greeleyville told the crowd, Dr. King made it clear years ago that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. When we look at those kinds of issues, they deserve our full attention. 

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