WASHINGTON (RNS) The push for immigration reform has united many faith groups in a fervor not seen since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, much of it directed at Arizona’s new get-tough immigration law.
Yet a central feature of the apartheid fight — a church-led boycott against South Africa — hasn’t been fully embraced by religious groups who are treading carefully on whether to withhold spending in the Grand Canyon State.
“Without any debate, we have come to the same side of this issue,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, who heads the United Church of Christ’s Phoenix-based Southwest Conference. “We don’t do that when we talk about abortion or gay marriage. Those have been very painful dialogues.”
A group of big-name faith leaders from Arizona recently pressed their case on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers the new bill has already led to racial profiling and a 30 percent drop in attendance among immigrant congregations.
United Methodist, evangelical and Catholic leaders continue to work together around marches and vigils. But only members of the liberal UCC have embraced a boycott effort as a means of trying to overturn the law.
“Moral and ethical arguments aren’t enough of an impact,” Dorhauer said in an interview from a meeting of top UCC leaders in Cleveland.
“The only effective impact is economic impact.”
Dorhauer and six other ministers have three targets:
— Don’t schedule business or meetings in Arizona, a popular destination for winter events.
— Ask Arizona church members to host UCC members in their homes to avoid supporting local hotels.
— Compile and distribute a list of immigrant-owned restaurants so UCC members can only frequent those establishments.
“It is going to have a profound impact on business owners,” Dorhauer said. “That was the intent and will continue to be the intent of the boycott.”
The first target will be moving next year’s Southwest Conference meeting from Arizona to New Mexico, a move that Dorhauer estimates will deprive the state of about $125,000 in direct spending.
Though the votes passed easily, it wasn’t without some controversy.
The original host of the 2011 meeting, a church in Sun City, Ariz., felt especially miffed, he said.
The United Methodist Church and the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, however, have shied away from pursuing any coercive measures, focusing instead on pushing for repeal.
“The boycott will only extend our recession by three to five years and hit those who are poorest among us,” said United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano of Phoenix, the first Hispanic woman to be elected bishop in her denomination. “People have to follow their conscience. For some, the only place they can stand is a place of boycott and we respect that.”
Others say they will continue with planned meetings, including a September gathering of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops. Some bishops expressed support of the boycott, but the church ultimately decided to use the opportunity to stand in solidarity with immigrants and keep the meeting in Phoenix.
“They just wanted to take a strong stand,” said Greta Huls, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. “They will be supporting the people who work the lower paid jobs. They can learn firsthand of what’s happening and make a more educated statement.”
Conference planners have added two extra days onto the schedule so that bishops and their spouses will have time to personally inspect conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Though the Interfaith Immigration Coalition hasn’t signed on to a boycott, Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodists’ Washington office, said, “I won’t entirely rule it out.”
“Too often, they have to feel it economically to pay attention,” he said of targets of boycotts.
Beyond the boycott, faith groups are ramping up plans for public protests of the Arizona law, starting with the Isaiah 58 National Solidarity Vigil and Fast for Arizona.
Religious leaders across the country will be assigned different weeks to hold scheduled rallies outside statehouses, schools and detention centers, as well as sign a petition to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. The vigil concludes with a three-day fast July 30-Aug. 1.
Carcano stressed that prayer plays an especially critical role in the strategy.
“The majority (of the immigrant community) have survived on faith,” Carcano said. “For us to be joining from a faith perspective is a powerful partnership.”
Mefford said there’s value in organizing and protesting the law, even if the public protests do not move Brewer to seek its repeal.
“I have to believe that’s what God has called us to do,” he said.
“Do I see her at the end of 90 days falling on her knees and urging this be revoked? Probably not. But it’s not impossible.”
By ELEANOR GOLDBERG
c. 2010 Religion News Service
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