Ariz. Churches Mobilize Against Immigration Law

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Arizona's controversial immigration law went into effect this week, or at least parts of it. Despite significant support for the bill in the state, critics have been loud and organized. A big part of that opposition has come from the religious community. From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd reports.


Arizona's controversial immigration law went into effect last week, but it wasn't the law the state wanted. On Wednesday, a federal judge blocked key provisions, including one that requires the police to check the immigration status of all suspects. Despite significant support for the bill in Arizona, its critics have been loud and organized. A big part of that support has come from the religious community.

From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd has more.

PETER O'DOWD: When Arizonas legislature passed SB-1070 in April, a prayer vigil began outside the House of Representatives. For 102 consecutive days, members of various church communities were a constant presence outside the building. It was no different on Wednesday morning when the federal ruling came down.

PRIEST: (Spanish spoken)

CROWD: (Spanish spoken)

O'DOWD: Word of the judges decision trickled through the crowd as a Catholic priest gave Mass. Whispers grew into smiles, smiles into audible cries of joy.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

O'DOWD: Wiping away tears, Nicole Torres said this is just the beginning.

Ms. NICOLE TORRES: Were going to continue the next part of our campaign, of our plan, which is to register as many unregistered voters in Maricopa County, Arizona that we can, make sure they go out to the polls in November and really hold the elected officials who thought this was okay accountable.

O'DOWD: Recently in Arizona, this line between politics and prayer is crossed nearly every time demonstrators gather. Since April, marches have commonly started or ended at a local church.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

O'DOWD: On the day the watered-down law went into effect, demonstrations against it still went ahead, beginning here at the Episcopal Trinity Cathedral. Religious leaders and politicians stood in the pulpit and roused about 400 people to continue the fight.

(Soundbite of congregation chanting in Spanish)

Ms. PRISCILLA AUSTIN: Christ going to the cross was the very presence of a brown man being sent to the execution chamber on some trumped up charges.

O'DOWD: This is Priscilla Austin. Shes a vicar at a local Lutheran church, who says the merger of religion, justice and politics goes way back to the beginning of Christianity. Austin says modern politics has forced her congregation into hiding. Attendance has been cut in half at Hispanic prayer services since Arizonas immigration controversy began. Nearby Episcopal and Catholic churches report similar drops. Austin believes people are afraid to be in public.

Ms. AUSTIN: We find that there is now an opportunity to continue to stand alongside our Latino brothers and sisters. The church is here for them and with them.

O'DOWD: Churches benefit by keeping Latinos happy and in the pews. Thats according to Elaine Ecklund. She studies religion and politics at Rice University.

Ms. ELAINE ECKLUND: Theyre fundamental to religious life in American society right now.

O'DOWD: Ecklund says nearly 70 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. are Catholic.

MS. ECKLUND: This is a huge constituency in the church thats keeping the American church alive really and thriving.

O'DOWD: Ecklund says this applies to all denominations. The conservative Evangelical movement is also pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez leads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He says Evangelicals are involved first to protect human rights and then to bolster congregations.

Mr. SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ (National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference): Its the fastest growing component of many of our churches. So, were looking at the very viability, survivability and sustainability of the Latino Evangelical community lies embedded in the immigration reform debate.

(Soundbite of women singing in Spanish)

Ms. ANA DURAND(ph): We dont believe that any person can change the rules of God.

O'DOWD: Ana Durand is 27. She was born in Mexico and now has a green card. In downtown Phoenix this week, she joined about 200 other protesters against the immigration law from Trinity Cathedral. Some held crucifixes, others held a portrait of the Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II.

Ms. DURAN: We know we havent won yet. We know this is just a little piece of what we want. So we're still going to continue to be praying.

O'DOWD: The protesters, including clergy from several denominations, walked to the federal courthouse. Some were arrested and held over night.

For NPR News, Im Peter ODowd.

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