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31 UUs arrested at immigration protest at White House

Unitarian Universalists made up largest contingent in interfaith action July 31.
By Elaine McArdle
8.11.14

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In what activists are calling the largest-ever civil disobedience action at the White House in support of immigrant justice, 31 Unitarian Universalists were among 112 faith leaders and others who intentionally had themselves arrested July 31 while protesting U.S. immigration policy.

The arrests and a march on Saturday, August 2 were part of “Days of Action,” a weekend of lobbying and protests by a coalition of immigrant rights and religious organizations. The coalition is urging President Barack Obama to stop deporting undocumented immigrants until the federal government makes major reforms to immigration policy, and to take a humanitarian approach to the thousands of children crossing the U.S. border through Mexico.

“We’re hoping to send a very powerful message to the administration that there’s a unified faith community, with people willing to put it on the line, and that you can and must stop the deportations,” said Susan Leslie, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office for Congregational Advocacy and Witness.

UUs made up the largest number of those arrested and participating in the July 31 civil disobedience, Leslie said. Clergy from many other denominations were also arrested, including ministers from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The 31 UUs arrested included 18 clergy, 1 seminarian, 2 state network leaders, and 10 congregational leaders, she said, with over 30 other UUs in supportive roles assisting the arrestees. Seventy UUs from 20 states traveled to Washington, D.C., with scores more from nearby congregations joining in the protest march August 2. Leslie estimated that 600 to 700 people attended a rally on Friday, August 1, with 2,000 people joining the Saturday march.

UUs for Social Justice in the National Capital Region, an advocacy group, organized housing for the interfaith coalition members, Leslie said, with 15 UU families in the D.C. area sharing their homes with UUs and others, including three undocumented women known as “DREAMer moms.” Universalist National Memorial Church in downtown D.C. hosted a meal, informational session, and worship service for UUs at the start of the events.

President Obama, who has been unsuccessful in getting Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, has promised to take executive action to address deportation and immigration policy. Congress is in recess during August, and Obama has said he will take action this month. The protest was timed to put pressure on him to halt deportations—some 1,100 a day—at least until reforms are put into place.

“The reason this action is so important is that it was right at the time the president is deciding what he will do,” said Leslie, who was at the D.C. action but not among those arrested. “We want to shut down detentions and deportation, and if Congress doesn’t like it, they should pass a bill.” UUs have been at the forefront of the immigration justice issue, Leslie noted. In 2013, the UUA adopted a Statement of Conscience entitled “Immigration as a Moral Issue”; this year, the UUA General Assembly endorsed an Action of Immediate Witness supporting the interfaith action in Washington.

Before the Days of Action arrests, the interfaith group gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House for an interfaith prayer meeting and press conference. They then moved to the sidewalk in front of the White House, where they sat down and held hands. As they had planned, they were then arrested for blocking the sidewalk. In what is called “post and forfeit,” each paid $50 cash and forfeited their right to trial before being released from a nearby processing center a few hours later.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice, represented UUs at the interfaith service, where her comments drew cheers. “Our Unitarian Universalist faith teaches that all life is connected—both in ways obvious to us and in ways we can never fully know,” she said. “This lends a deep urgency to any struggle for justice, especially when those suffering are the most vulnerable. We are here today in solidarity with our immigrant partners because their suffering is our own, and our faith compels us to do all that we can to relieve it.”

In support of the action in D.C., detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., who have had strong support from local UUs, began a 75-hour hunger strike on July 30. They were also protesting conditions inside the facility, which is run by a private company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On Saturday, August 2, activists, families, and supporters gathered at the detention center for a rally and letter-writing campaign. At the same time, Veronica Noriega, wife of hunger strike leader Ramon Mendoza Pascual, was in D.C., where she spoke at the Saturday rally.

Leslie is urging UUs across the country to increase their involvement in the effort to stop deportations. Town hall meetings will be held in congressional districts across the nation during August to discuss U.S. immigration policy, said Leslie, who encouraged UUs to attend and speak out at the meetings. “We’re asking people to go to town halls and ask their congresspeople to get back to work on immigration reform,” she said.


Photograph (above): The Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice, is arrested outside the White House on Thursday, July 31 (© David Vita). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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