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A bend in the arc: The long struggle for immigrants' rights

Acting in Faith  |  By Madeline Schaefer, Nov 26, 2013
Photo: AFSC

Pennsylvania is beautiful in October. Like many places on the East Coast, fall turns the expansive deciduous landscape into a blanket of fire, transforms light into magic and the mind to the past. Time slows down this time of year. The future is no longer yours to be explored, but is yours to be remembered as life takes its rightful place within the cycle of death and rebirth. 

It was under these conditions that I drove from Philadelphia to Harrisburg for a weekend event on immigration hosted by Harrisburg Monthly Meeting and the Harrisburg Center for Peace and Justice. Amy Gottlieb, a staff person with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Newark, had been invited to present about her work serving immigrants who face detention and deportation

Amy started working at AFSC as an intern during law school and has continued for over 15 years. Not only does she have a solid understanding of the organization’s Quaker philosophy—a philosophy that resonates with her own beliefs—but she has a vast knowledge of the immigration system itself, the roots of its dysfunctions, and what people around the country are doing to help move immigration reform in the right direction.

Harrisburg Monthly Meeting has deep ties to the local community through its close association with the Harrisburg Center for Peace and Justice. One woman who works at the center is also a member of Harrisburg meeting, and she has seen firsthand the effects of the current immigration policies on local families who are suffering from detention, deportation, or a lack of services due to their undocumented status. 

After a warm and well-attended potluck at the meeting house, we gathered in the worship room to watch “Caminos: The immigrant’s trail,” a short film on immigration across the U.S./Mexico border that addresses the roots of immigration, how it is affecting local communities in Mexico, and the dangers that people face when attempting to cross the border. 

Amy then presented on her experience working with immigrants facing deportation, as well as AFSC’s New Path document that outlines seven principles for humane immigration reform. She shared how difficult it has been to create change in a system that is so complex and archaic, that many lawyers—let alone those undocumented immigrants caught in its webhave trouble navigating it.

She is not convinced that the U.S. is ready for real immigration reform—how could we be with our country’s current rhetoric around “national security”? Our foreign and domestic policies are based around fear and the accumulation of power to assuage that fear.

I found myself both impressed with the depth of her knowledge, and overwhelmed by the dimensions of injustice embedded in our current immigration policies. 

Amy's husband, Ravi, who also spoke, has been fighting his own case to stay in this country after having been detained with the threat of deportation. Having spent two years in an immigrant detention center, Ravi has firsthand experience with a legal system that does not protect immigrants without citizenship. In telling his story, he exposed the inhumanity of a system that refuses to see undocumented immigrants as human beings.

And this is where hope shone through. Because Ravi spoke of hope; hope that his own story might serve as a small victory in the longer struggle to recognize the dignity and inherent worth of all people. Hope that by joining hands with citizens like those sitting in the room that night, who recognize Ravi’s humanity, all of us can expose the injustice of this system and begin the journey towards justice.

Both he and Amy maintain a wide perspective on this work—the struggle for basic human rights has come a long way and has a long way to go. But every time we see one another as human beings, when we witness to the good in ourselves and others, when we speak truth to power in the face of injustice, we are shaping the course of history. We are claiming our right of connection to this life and all people.

“When an immigrant is accompanied by community members, friends, clergy and family," Ravi said, "the impact is felt beyond the individuals. We are making an impact on the whole system when we show the government that we [immigrants] are part of communities.”

Fall is a time to take stock of our communities, and to imagine what might be reborn into a world that recognizes the humanity in each being. It is a time to witness to others’ stories of pain and injustice, to share our power for the good, and to join in the cyclical nature of our collective future. It is a time to love and listen as many have done before. It is a time to look deep into our humanity, join hands with our community, and harvest the seeds of regeneration. 

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.