“Scripture tells me that every person no matter their immigration status is a child of God and deserves to be treated with dignity."
Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Dozens of Catholic group and faith leaders were arrested on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after calling on lawmakers to support bipartisan immigration legislation that makes permanent protections available to Dreamers protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Ahead of a civil disobedience action in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda during the “National Catholic Day of Action with Dreamers,” Catholic leaders spoke about the moral imperative to pass legislation that provides dignity to undocumented immigrants. The event, organized by PICO National Network and Faith in Public Life, intended to get congressional members to pass a narrow bill that would give legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
“Scripture tells me that every person no matter their immigration status is a child of God and deserves to be treated with dignity,” Sister JoAnn Persch said during a press conference prior to the event. “These young Dreamers are a gift to our country and I stand with them in this moment of truth. You can’t call yourself a person of faith and not act.”
Crowds formed a circle in the middle of the rotunda to pray the rosary, before Capitol Police arrested about 40 faith leaders — many of whom were nuns — peacefully singing gospel songs like “Amazing Grace.” They also chanted, “Paul! Paul! Why do you persecute me?” likely in a double-edged reference to Paul the Apostle who became a follower of Jesus after he stopped persecuting Christians, as well as to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) who has control over what bills can be put on the House calendar. Their songs echoed through the cavernous hallways, with the only other sounds coming from the zip ties Capitol Police used to tie their wrists behind their backs. People in the upper level applauded as police escorted the last protester — a nun — out of the rotunda.
Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, one of the individuals arrested, previously wrote of his planned arrest as “an expression of solidarity with ‘Dreamers.'”
“To say that they broke the law and should be punished would be like prosecuting a baby in a stroller when its mother shoplifts diapers at Walmart,” Reese wrote in a National Catholic Reporter piece published the day before.
The Senate recently took up several immigration measures to provide a pathway to citizenship for certain DACA recipients, but every proposal failed to get the necessary 60 votes to pass in the Senate. The Trump administration phased out the DACA program in September 2017, punting the issue of the future immigration status of nearly 800,000 Dreamers to Congress. The Obama-era program provides temporary work authorization and deportation relief to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the country before the age of 16 and have continuously resided in the country since 2007.
Multiple court challenges, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have forced the federal government to continue reissuing DACA protections. Since it’s likely that the White House will continue to try to kill DACA, Tuesday’s action by Catholic leaders aimed to put pressure on congressional lawmakers to pass a permanent solution.
As was likely the intention, the image of older Catholic nuns and clergy members getting arrested should raise eyebrows and take on extra significance among congressional lawmakers. One-third of all House members and a quarter of Senators identify as Catholic, according to Catholic News Service, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Top Catholic leaders like Archbishop of Newark Joseph Tobin — one of three Americans named to such a high rank — sees welcoming immigrants and refugees as a parable akin to Jesus’ journey as a refugee child in Egypt.
Catholic leaders who risked arrest to stand up for immigrant rights aren’t alone in their advocacy. As a longstanding supporter of immigrants and refugees, Pope Francis has used his pulpit to advocate for an attitude of “welcoming, knowing and acknowledging” the other, Crux recently reported. He has visited refugees at welcoming centers around Europe, launched worldwide campaigns to “share the journey” of refugees and immigrants, and criticized Trump’s decision to rescind the DACA program.