Faith Groups Join Immigration Fray in Iowa

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 12, 2007, issue of December 14, 2007.
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As the presidential contenders rush to score political points before the Iowa caucuses, a number of the state’s faith leaders are criticizing what they say is unnecessarily harsh rhetoric on immigration coming from several Republican campaigns.

In little more than a month, activists have gathered thousands of signatures and assembled an ad hoc coalition that includes dozens of faith groups and religious leaders in an effort to halt the use of language and materials they view as dehumanizing to immigrants, both legal and illegal. The campaign, which is backed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, is the first coordinated effort to unite Iowa’s religious progressives.

The mobilization comes as the GOP’s two frontrunners in Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, are trading escalating attacks over immigration — a hot-button issue in Iowa due to a recent influx of immigrants and several high-profile raids.

Though he recently was forced to answer for having employed a lawn service that used illegal workers, Romney has attacked Huckabee’s record on immigration as governor. In Iowa, both candidates unveiled new television advertisements on immigration this week, with Huckabee focusing on an immigration platform called “Secure Borders” and Romney lambasting his rival for backing “in-state tuition for illegal aliens” and “taxpayer-funded scholarships for illegal aliens” during his time as governor.

In response to the tenor of the campaigns, an ad hoc coalition, the Iowa Interfaith Immigration Coalition, began circulating a petition that calls for “laws that affirm [immigrants’] dignity, preserve their families, and acknowledge the value of their presence among us.” Connie Ryan Terrell, who is spearheading the effort from her post as executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, said coalition members had recently met with the staffs of all presidential candidates, asking them to tone down their rhetoric.

Within the Jewish community, the campaign was jumpstarted by Barb Hirsch-Giller, a social worker from the Des Moines suburbs who is active as a volunteer for Illinois Senator Barack Obama. A member of the Conservative Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Des Moines, Hirsch-Giller gave a sermon on the immigration issue during an alternative Sabbath service she led several weeks ago, prompting the congregation to sign on to the campaign.

At the same time, both Hirsch-Giller and leaders of the Des Moines federation said that the federation’s decision to sign on to the campaign did not come easily. Having spent several weeks reviewing the petition, which does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, the federation ultimately joined the coalition a few days before a press conference held last week.

“There was debate, simply because the statement itself…is wishy-washy,” said Mark Finkelstein, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines. “I think I have the viewpoint of many Americans, that an uncontrolled border in which people simply stream across is not selective enough to ensure that the security of the United States is taken care of. [At the same time] we believe in the dignified treatment of all immigrants, and in general, there is the feeling that the debate about immigrants has gotten nasty in many respects.”

While Jewish leaders have not been at the forefront of the Iowa campaign — according to Ryan Terrell, the Methodist Church helped jumpstart the effort — Jewish lobbying groups in Washington have made immigration reform a priority in recent years.

According to a survey of American Jewish attitudes released this week by the American Jewish Committee, 79% of American Jews say immigration is a problem that is somewhat or very serious. Two-thirds said they supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, while 15% said they support deporting all illegal immigrants back to their home countries and 14% said they support allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States to work for a limited period of time.

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