Faith Leader Says Fight Continues As Dream Act Fails

Supporters of immigration legislation known as the DREAM Act lost their battle this weekend, after the Senate blocked the bill. Senate Democrats fell five votes short of the 60 votes needed to advance the proposed law. The DREAM Act would have set a course toward legal residency for young undocumented immigrants, who were brought to this country illegally by their parents, if they met certain conditions such as graduating from high school and embarking on college or military service. Host Michel Martin speaks with one of the act's advocates, the Rev. Jim Wallis, who is founder and president of Christian group, Sojourners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

While the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" legislation found enough support in the Senate to pass, supporters of immigration legislation known as the DREAM Act lost their battle. On Saturday, Senate Democrats fell five votes short of the 60 votes needed to advance the DREAM Act. This is Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Today on the floor of the Senate we had a chance to make a dream come true for tens of thousands of young people across America, a dream that they would have a chance to become part of the future of this great nation. While today's vote was a setback, it hasn't changed our resolve at all.

MARTIN: It's unlikely that supporters of the DREAM Act will get the votes in the next Republican led Congress. Even though Democrats still are in control of the Senate, their numbers have narrowed considerably. Here's Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): This bill is allowed at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity.

MARTIN: The DREAM Act would have set a course toward legal residency for young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country illegally by their parents. These young people would've had to have met certain conditions such as graduating from high school and embarking on college or military service.

A number of faith leaders were active in the fight. The Reverend Jim Wallis was one of them. He's the founder and president of the organization Sojourners. That's a Christian group focused on social change and he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Reverend Wallis, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Reverend JIM WALLIS (Founder, President, Sojourners): Great to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you the same question that I asked Bishop Jackson earlier. How do you understand what happened politically? And how do you understand it theologically?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, first of all, the DREAM Act got 55 votes. That should be enough. But the dreamers - these kids now call themselves the dreamers - I've looked into their eyes and I see the future. And the senators who are against this, think they can veto the future, and they can't.

Let me just tell you a story. Bernard Pastor(ph), young kid in Cincinnati, a couple weeks ago, fifth in his class, he's a soccer star. His parents left Guatemala, fleeing for their lives when he was one years old. He was in a minor car accident two weeks ago, wasn't even his fault, and then he got put into a jumpsuit and chains in Butler County, Ohio, could then deport him away from his family, back to a country he's never been to, where his life could be in danger again.

Well, the school rallied around him, the church, all of his friends. It was a real movement. And, finally, Friday night, pleased the White House and the rest, he got freed. And he was here to watch the DREAM Act go down Saturday in the Senate. So Bernard and his young dreamer friends, this is a matter of kids that are Americans, who have been Americans their whole lives, who want to go to college, want to serve in the military, simply want an earned path to citizenship.

MARTIN: Let's focus again on the politics and then also again on why you feel that there's a moral component to this. Just on the politics side, you said that this is a function of broken Senate rules. But the same Senate, the same exact group of people passed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." What do you think that says?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, I just think majority vote should be enough in the U.S. Senate. I think what's underneath this, though, is this is a short-term appeal to fear and even to hate. I mean, 11 senators were co-sponsors of immigration reform last time around. But now, anything that the White House is for, they want to be against. This is politics. And it's always easy to play politics with the lives of very vulnerable people.

MARTIN: Why do you feel that there's a moral component to this such that you felt the need to get involved and to play as active a role as you have done?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, Rabbi David Saperstein and I led this march on Tuesday with the dreamers. We marched around the Senate and like the walls of Jericho, and they didn't come tumbling down as Jericho did. We didn't have trumpets. Maybe that was the problem. But David spoke powerfully as a Jew at the press conference and said, you know, we're told to treat strangers among us as if they're part of us. These kids are our kids. They're in our churches. They're in our schools. They're in our neighborhoods. They've been here a long time. They're American kids.

And how we treat the stranger, my faith tells me, is how we treat Jesus himself. That's what Jesus is. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. How you treat the stranger is in fact part of our obligation as people of faith.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the Reverend Jim Wallis of the Christian social justice group Sojourners. We're talking about the DREAM Act. It's a bill that was meant to give some undocumented youth a path toward legal residency and it died in Congress over the weekend.

The argument that other people make is that defending the borders is a core function of government, some might argue the primary function of government. And there are those who say that this is rewarding, as Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said in a clip that we played earlier, that this, in effect, rewarding people for illegal activity, even if the people here - at issue here - were not in a position to make the decision themselves because they were children when they came to this country. What is your response to that?

Rev. WALLIS: Absolutely a nation has a right to have a good immigration policy. Not open borders, but a reasonable, rational, fair and humane law. We don't have that. We have a broken system. Twelve million people are in this country. And to deport all those people is impossible and would be cruel. So you have to have something like a fair guest worker policy that allows folks to come out of the shadows and be treated fairly. And then an earned path to citizenship for those who want to do a lot of things like learn English and have no criminal records and, you know, wait a long time, go to the back of the line.

This isn't a sort of a zero sum game, you know, a kind of a small pie. You know, I want to talk about the responsibilities of, you know, six banks who wrecked this economy and who've been job killers and putting people out of their homes. Those people have been responsible for more economic chaos than kids that just want a chance to go to college and get a job.

MARTIN: Where does this go from here? Where do you think this fight goes from here? As we just discussed it, it does seem unlikely, given the makeup of the next Congress. Republican majority on the House side, many of whose members campaign on a more restrictionist view of immigration. Many people who ran ads, that was a signature issue for them advocating a more restrictionist policy on immigration.

Where do you think this issue goes from here? And honestly, because it is the season of, you are a faith leader and this is a season where many people kind of reconnect with faith, how do you explain this from a theological perspective? Particularly people who you might be counseling and offering sort of comfort to at this time, for who are disappointed, those who are on your side of the issue.

Rev. WALLIS: Well, when I, again, looked into their eyes, I remembered looking into the eyes of 14-year-old kids in Soweto, South African townships, a long time ago, who told me that someday when I said, we, our children breathe free air in South Africa. And 14-year-old kids looked at me and said, I will see to it. I will see to it. So I told these kids, what you do right now, how you respond right now after we lost will then determine when we win, how long it will take to win.

Because Dr. King said, you know, the long arc of history bends toward justice, and it does. It's not often a straight line. But the pressure now steps up in the White House. And I've said to them directly, you are deporting more people than were deported under Bush. You're breaking up families, you're breaking up churches, you're deporting pastors. You're deporting dads and the sons join the gangs. You can't say you're for fatherhood and do that.

So this administration's going to face pressure from the faith community to change its deportation policies and protect families until there is comprehensive immigration reform.

MARTIN: The Reverend Jim Wallis is the founder and president of Sojourners, a Christian social justice group. He's also the author of many books. He's written and worked extensively in support of the DREAM Act and he was kind enough to join us today in our studios in Washington, D.C. Reverend Wallis, thank you so much for joining us. Happy holidays to you.

Rev. WALLIS: Always a pleasure to be here. Merry Christmas.

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