For love and justice

Illustration of two faces separated by barbed wire and an American flag.

Unitarian Universalists mobilize in response to laws that tear families apart and abuse immigrants. In Denver, the fight is personal.

Image: ©2012 Edel Rodriguez

©2012 Edel Rodriguez


Billy Rivera answered the door on the hot July 2009 morning nobody in his family will ever forget.

Three agents from the Jefferson County, Colorado, sheriff’s office waited on the other side. “We’re looking for José Raúl Cárdenas Gonzalez.”

“Uh, you’d better talk to my mom.” Heart pounding, the high school sophomore ran to find his mom, Judy Cárdenas, a kindergarten teacher and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.

Judy did not know exactly where her husband was. At 5:30 each morning he got a call telling him the day’s job site for his backhoe.

For eight years, in order to keep their family together, the couple had lived with an uneasy gamble: that Raúl could stay under the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), living with Judy and the three kids, who were all U.S. citizens, in their cozy beige ranch house on a quiet middle-class street in Denver. They’d just lost that bet.

This is a love story. It’s about two people who fell in love. And it’s the story of a church community, First Universalist Church of Denver, that stood with them.

Judy and Raúl met on the Mexican holiday Día de la Raza, October 12, 2001. Judy had just bought her first house, not far from where she had grown up. A single mom, Judy had hired a Mexican man to help her renovate and learned he’d never had a birthday party. So she’d thrown him one. At the party she’d met his friend Raúl, who had grown up in a rough barrio in Mexico City and come to Denver to work on a pipeline with his stepdad.

Their connection was instantaneous, and it’s easy to see why. Judy is the irresistible force, outgoing and open-hearted, full of energy and throwing herself into each moment, to the immovable object that is Raúl, muscular, self-confident, organized, and hardworking, on the job and the soccer field. “It was like meeting the other half of our souls,” Judy says.

The previous year Raúl had left the urban gulch where his family was squatting in a cinderblock, dirt-floor house and crossed the Mexico-U.S. border with a coyote, or human smuggler. He’d been sending his earnings back to his mom, grandparents, and siblings to build more rooms. He planned to rejoin them in another year and become a shoe vendor in Mexico.

“I’d been hurt before,” Judy says. “He’d been hurt before. We had to look deeply into ourselves, whether to make this a permanent thing or stop so nobody got hurt again.” Judy’s first husband, from El Salvador, had gotten an appointment within six months with the U.S. consulate in San Salvador to obtain a visa. However, a 1996 immigration reform had created new “bars” and “grounds of inadmissibility” that have made obtaining legal status for foreign-born spouses about as hard as passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

But they were optimistic—and in love. The next Día de la Raza they married, and the next their daughter, Pamela (which they pronounce the Spanish way, Pa-MAY-la), was due.

Judy Cárdenas has been lighting “candles of community” at First Universalist Church for years, talking about “people who are undocumented and afraid, sprinkled through my whole life”—her friends, Raúl’s family, the families of her kindergarten students. People listened, and some spoke to her, as they do for parishioners who light a candle for a coworker with cancer.

When she got up in January 2010 to say that her husband, Raúl, was undergoing deportation, jaws dropped. “But you’re married,” people said.

Shortly after their marriage, Raúl had traveled with Judy and his two stepsons to meet his family in Mexico. They had already begun the process to petition for a visa. Unbeknownst to them, by making that trip and then re-entering the United States, Raúl had triggered a permanent bar against ever getting legal status—unless the 1996 law was reversed.

The Cárdenas family’s life is closely interwoven into the church community. Pamela is in the religious education program, and the boys are leaders in the youth group. Judy sometimes brings her father, now 92, to services. Raúl coaches a local adult soccer team, and he’s a wizard with any breed of machinery, always ready to help with a project.

First Universalist’s Social Justice Council had been undergoing reorganization, but within the 565-member church, numerous high-energy, retired social justice activists were primed to go.

Pete and Mary Peterson knew they had to do something. After retiring, Dr. Pete Peterson, a renowned pulmonologist, had volunteered to tutor sixth graders in math and gotten close to an undocumented boy who had been carried across the river from Mexico at age four. He’d given a talk about his work with a state immigration group on a Sunday morning. “Pamela is so precious,” says Peterson, who tears up whenever he talks about the suffering of the kids he works with. “How can you separate her from her father?”

Priscilla Ledbury, who had ushered the congregation through the Welcoming Church program in the 1990s, along with her partner of thirty years, Rhoda Whitney, also jumped into the fight immediately. Injustice against immigrants and gay people are “linked oppressions, no doubt about it,” she says: The struggles for immigrant rights and LGBT rights both come out of laws that deal unfairly with people who are different, forcing them to live in secrecy and fear. Both require creating an understanding that these people, too, are part of our community, often people we already know, work with, and love. “My attitude was, ‘This church helped my family, and I’m going to help yours,’” Ledbury says.

In two months an Immigration Justice Task Force had formed and come out swinging. They needed to act on Raúl’s case right away even as they brought the congregation up to speed on a complex issue fraught with political posturing and myths. “They all kind of adopted us. It wasn’t just committee work,” Judy says.

The task force hosted lectures, showed films, held book discussions, circulated petitions, set up an informational kiosk in the church entry hall, and hung a banner outside. They joined demonstrations at the ice detention center where Raúl had been held. They met with state and federal legislators and a representative from the White House Domestic Policy Council. They appealed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and First Lady Michelle Obama. They called on the six other churches in the Denver cluster for support. The Rev. Nancy Bowen, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association Mountain Desert District, drew on her previous contact with the regional ICE director to make a case for Raúl. Helen Gray, a former public-radio news host and church member, made videos about the Cárdenas family with funding and strategic collaboration from the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, asking UUs nationwide for support.

And they wrote letters—lots and lots of letters.

Most of the congregation supported the church’s involvement in the issue right away, but some still do not. Rocilla Dilger, a retired primary teacher who has taught English to Uzbeki, Ukrainian, Russian, Somali, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other immigrants, keeps asking at the task force’s kiosk but hasn’t heard an answer that satisfies her: “I don’t understand why we’re supporting people who have broken the law. We can’t let everyone come across to our country. To me, it’s clear. They’ve broken the law. They should go back.”

Dan Schwartz, whose Jewish grandparents emigrated from Romania and never learned English, often fields questions at the kiosk. “People say, ‘He smuggled himself across the border. He has a fake Social Security card. It’s forgery’—like it’s never been done before. In the 1930s in Germany there were thousands of people with forged documents. People do what they have to do to survive.”

Immigration justice has become a flash point for Unitarian Universalists. It will be on everyone’s lips this June at the UUA’s “Justice General Assembly” in Phoenix, Arizona—where one of the most aggressive state laws on local immigration enforcement has been enacted and where the sheriff has been called out by federal authorities for racial profiling and civil rights violations. It may well be our next right-to-marry campaign, our next Edmund Pettus Bridge, our next abolition movement, a stand by which the world knows us.

In July 2010 the Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA’s first Latino president, was arrested for civil disobedience protesting Arizona SB 1070 and spent a night crammed in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix jail, where deportees are also held. Of the 750 or so congregations large enough to have social justice programs, about half are involved in immigration issues, says Susan Leslie, UUA Congregational Advocacy and Witness director. The 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis selected “ Immigration as a Moral Issue” as the 2010–14 Congregational Study/Action Issue, and a six-week curriculum has been developed. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign has made supporting immigrant families one of its priorities.

Why this issue? Why now? What about the economy, our hollow democracy, Wall Street greed—and the very connected problems of joblessness, homelessness, and hunger? What about environmental justice and the climate crisis? Is immigration justice the best place to invest our energy at this moment?

As the Rev. Colin Bossen, minister of the UU Society of Cleveland, says, “Immigration is just not a central issue in eastern Ohio. Cleveland is hemorrhaging population. It’s like New Orleans, except we didn’t have a hurricane. If I had been saying, ‘Let’s talk about immigration,’ in the middle of [the recent fight against the antiunion legislation SB 5], people would have been like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Yet Bossen was arrested with Morales and twenty-seven other UUs, including four from Ohio, and spent a night in jail in response to the call from the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the UU Congrega­tion of Phoenix for a National Day of Noncom­pliance when Arizona’s SB 1070 took effect.

Hustled into hot cells so crowded they couldn’t even sit on the floor, the ministers witnessed treatment of people suspected of not having documentation. Fluorescent light glared 24/7. No clocks. Food was served twice a day, and guards boasted about its rotted condition. Water was from a fountain attached to the tank of a cell’s single toilet. Inmates were denied toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, and epilepsy medication. Guards constantly moved inmates from cell to cell, preventing sleep. The ministers witnessed guards beat a woman who used foul language. Prisoners were then ordered to clean up the blood, and the rest of the cells, with a single bucket of water.

The reason UUs are taking to the streets, supporting undocumented immigrants, agitating for legislative reform, and creating ministries around how immigrants are treated is clear-cut, Morales says. How this country treats immigrants is an urgent moral issue of our day. It’s an appalling violation of our First Principle—respect for the inherent worth and dignity of each person—on a massive scale that is largely hidden from most Americans.

Since 2001 government attention on immigration has focused on dramatically stepped-up enforce­ment: armed border patrols; a 700-mile fence; federal-local law enforcement partnerships that encourage racial profiling and neighbor­hood sweeps; and expanded ice detention centers, often brutally run by companies with a profit motive to lobby for even stricter enforcement.

Hundreds of immigrants die each year—by drowning, heat exhaustion, injuries, and excessive force by border patrol—trying to cross the Sonoran Desert and Rio Grande.

Poor working families who have lived in the United States for years and committed no crime are separated when wage earners who can’t provide on-the-spot documentation are whisked off to ice detention, moved from place to place, and denied outside contact. About half those detained are deported. In the first six months of 2011, the U.S. government deported more than 46,000 parents, like Raúl, of U.S.-citizen children, many of whom then entered foster care. Fearful parents refuse basic services like free lunch programs, choosing that their children go hungry rather than providing information that might risk separation.

“Immigration is considered the second most complicated area of law, after tax law,” says Joy Athanasiou, Raúl’s attorney and cochair of the Legislative Advocacy Committee of the Colorado chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Most of the legal changes since the basic immigration system was enacted in 1965 have created further restrictions, she explains, without fixing any of the gaps that hurt children and families. The waiting list for visas, or “green cards,” for immigrants with sponsorship from employers or family members legally in this country is about as hard to fathom as the national deficit. Applications from Mexicans made in 1992–93 are just now being processed. For Mexicans who apply now, the predicted wait is fifty to seventy years.

The current system forces families into some horrible choices: What laws will they ignore, what risks will they take, in order to stay together? Is it better to live in fear, in a foreign and often hostile culture, in order to feed their families, keep them safe from worse violence, and give them hope for the future?

Nothing has done as much damage as the word illegal, immigration-justice activists say. That word has seeded a mythology that Americans are the victims of a kudzu-like invasion of criminals coming across our borders, desperate people who have nothing to lose. But legally speaking, being in the country without documentation is not a criminal but a civil offense, similar to speeding or letting your dog run unleashed. The UUA, along with immigrant organizations, advocates the term “undocumented” over “illegal” immigrant.

About half the 11 million undocumented people now in the United States—people from every continent and ethnicity—entered the country legally, with visas for work, school, or tourism, then stayed. Some found love or work and built lives here.

We need to acknowledge history and our own role in creating our immigration crisis, Morales argues in his essay “We Are One.” A portion of the world’s population has always migrated for all sorts of reasons: poverty and hunger, war and oppression, opportunity and education, natural disasters, and, now, rising sea levels. Almost all of us are from immigrant stock. Morales—whose grandparents, like thousands of others, simply moved into Texas a century ago with no thought of a visa—points out that the border was originally created to make space for American slavery, which was illegal in Mexico.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is a major factor in the dramatic rise in undocumented immigrants. Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, the number of undocumented immigrants has gone up 300 percent, 57 percent of whom are from Mexico. Without tariffs, subsidized U.S. corn flooded the Mexican market, and corn prices there dropped 70 percent, driving 2 million farmers off their land.

“When a nation enters into another nation to build roads to access their natural resources and their cheap labor, we should not be surprised when those same people take those same roads following everything that’s been stolen from them,” says Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, who has spoken at First Universalist. “We have an immigration problem because for over 100 years we have had a foreign policy that has stolen from these countries.”

Working with immigrant organizations, Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Com­munity have been drafting a comprehensive reform proposal for General Assembly delegates to consider endorsing. “We can’t just keep making it more complicated by addressing small parts of it, and it’s huge,” UUJEC’s Michael Greenman says. “These are all unacceptable situations—people dying, suffering, separating families on a daily basis—and it has to stop.”

The Denver Immigration Court, on the third floor of a federal building, is not easy to find. On the day of Raúl’s hearing, the small room was overflowing into the hall. Along with supporters from First Universalist, twenty UU ministers from the Mountain Desert District, adorned in wildly colorful stoles and robes, filed in. They said nothing. They only observed.

That first hearing lasted just eight minutes. More than 4,000 people—including 400 from the Denver area—had written letters, emailed, and called, asking for the halt of Raúl’s deportation. Caught off guard by the flood of support, the ICE prosecutor’s voice broke with emotion when she addressed the judge.

In the days leading up to the final hearing in November, Raúl and Judy were braced for what their attorney had told them was all but inevitable. Judy would stay in Denver with the two college-bound boys—Billy, a jazz trumpeter at a performing arts school, and Sammy, a star soccer player in an international baccalaureate program—and her father, whom the whole family had just helped move into assisted living that week. Raúl would take 8-year-old Pamela to Mexico, at least until her Spanish was fluent. She could finally get to know the grandmother whom, Pamela says, she only knows from the embroidered dresses she’d given her, dresses the little girl continued to wear as shirts long after she’d outgrown them. As for after that, no one could speak of without tears. Stress was thick in the Cárdenas house.

Nobody knows what tipped the scale. The afternoon before the decision was due, the Cárdenas family got word that the judge had signed an order to “administratively close” Raúl’s case. In August the Obama administration—which has deported a record 1 million immigrants since 2009, even though immigration has slowed since the economic downturn began in 2008—had urged prosecutors to use discretion in low-priority, noncriminal cases like Raúl’s. However, immigration lawyers in Denver hadn’t seen ICE use it yet.

“I do think this kind of public witness makes a difference,” says the Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland, First Universalist’s senior minister. “This is no longer behind closed doors. The world is watching.”

The decision means Raúl’s case will be removed from the court’s docket, but the deportation process could be restarted at any time. For now, he will not be separated from his family in Denver. But he cannot visit relatives in Mexico and legally return, nor can he take a job. “I’m one of those guys who always wants to improve myself,” Raúl says. “I want to help my family, not only this family but my family in Mexico.” Friends and neighbors are keeping him busy with odd jobs—from renovating a basement to stringing elaborate synchronized Christmas light shows. “If it wasn’t for the work,” he says, “I don’t think I’d make it.”

Not everyone in the denomination agrees on this divisive and complex issue—what to do as a country, what to do as religious people. “I’ve heard people express concern that we can’t have an anything-goes immigration policy, and I agree,” President Morales says.

Yet our religious principles can guide us to some common ground: Everyone should be treated with compassion and dignity. Protecting family unity and human life must be priorities in enforcement. And there must be reasonable, attainable legal pathways to citizenship.

“It’s an issue not so much that we chose,” Morales says, “but that was here for us, in the same way the anti-gay legislation of 1980s and ’90s called us.”

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