Political Advocacy for Immigration Reform is a Marathon not a Sprint

The message in my title is not original with me. I have heard it stated a number of times by Mark Prosser, the Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police in Storm Lake (IA), based on the results of his tireless efforts to promote immigration reform and his experiences “in the trenches” of the enormous obstacles to accomplishing these goals (which the Advocacy Group at CASA has also experienced).

One such obstacle is the current brokenness of the political system, where the primary goal of too many politicians is to get elected, and then re-elected, rather than to govern well in a manner that promotes the well-being of their constituents.

A case in point is my own experience in talking face-to-face with an elected law enforcement officer or two about the possibility of their supporting legislation to provide temporary driver’s licenses for all immigrants, documented or undocumented. In addition to the benefits such licenses would provide for immigrants who need a way to get to work and for enabling their families to get to stores, churches and medical appointments, the public safety benefits would be enormous since such a program would insure that all immigrant drivers get tested on driving skills and know the rules of the road, and would require that they have auto insurance.

Yet many law elected law enforcement officers whose very job is to promote public safety oppose such legislation. Why? To give one reason, I paraphrase what one elected law enforcement officer told me: “I can see the many benefits for public safety and our Latino neighbors. But if I went public in support of such legislation in my conservative county, I might lose the next election.”

A second reason for not supporting such driver’s license legislation for undocumented immigrants, which is often unspoken, but extremely prevalent, is captured in the words, “That would be rewarding those who have broken the law.” To introduce my response to that concern, I point to a second symptom of the current brokenness of politics, hyper-partisanship.

As currently practiced, politics focuses on one-dimensional either/or thinking (“It’s my way or the highway”) rather than the needed both/and thinking. So, when it comes to any potential immigration legislation, those on one side of the political aisle focus on border enforcement and punishing those who have broken the law by entering our country illegally. Those on the other side of the aisle focus on providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Very few politicians say we need to do both, possibly because such both/and thinking gets punished on Election Day.

An attempt was made by the U. S. Senate in 2013 to pass such both/and legislation by means of a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that included both a pathway to citizenship and punishment for those who have broken the law by means of appropriate fines. But those who embrace either-or thinking killed that bill.

As an aside to those readers who profess commitment to the Christian faith, such a both/and approach to immigration reform can navigate the tension between two biblical teachings: respect for the law (Romans 13: 1-7) and the call for Christians to “welcome the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18 and Matthew 25: 31-40). But such both/and thinking seems to be missing as much in our churches as in the halls of congress.

In light of these two major political obstacles, those of us who are committed to political advocacy on behalf of the well-being of our immigrant neighbors should not expect quick victories (as in a 100 meter dash). But that doesn’t mean giving up. We work for incremental change within the constraints of the political obstacles at the same time that we work to ameliorate those obstacles. We do that because it is the “right thing to do”, not because we envision “quick success around the corner”.

To press my track analogy, to complete a marathon, you need to “keep running.” And that is what we at CASA have been doing these past few years, by taking initiatives such as the following: circulating an electronic petition “To Fix Our Broken Immigration System” that garnered about 800 signatures in and around Sioux County, which caught the attention of Charles Grassley and Stephen King sufficient to lead to two conference calls with Grassley and a face-to-face meeting with King; and placing a half-page add in the Des Moines Register, signed by numerous individuals and agencies in Iowa, expressing support for comprehensive immigration reform.

But the primary reason why advocacy for immigration reform is a marathon is that it will require a change in minds and hearts of many Anglos in our region and our political representatives, which is a slow process. My proposed strategy for increasing the likelihood that we will eventually win the marathon race by changing minds and hearts can be called the “personal touch.”

What I mean is that too many Anglos who are unsympathetic to the plight of their immigrant neighbors haven’t taken then time to “get to know them.” And too many legislators argue for bills that can have profound negative effects on immigrants that “they don’t know.” So, our immigrant neighbors too easily become “faceless statistics,” not real human beings who have the same aspirations and dreams as all other human beings.

But, everything changes when you get to know your immigrant neighbors on a personal level.” I know that for a fact. A few years ago, I led a series of seminars at my church in which we didn’t talk at or about our immigrant neighbors. Rather, we talked with our immigrant neighbors, first listening to their painful stories about how the current broken immigration system was decimating the unity and stability of their families. We found out that many of those who were undocumented fled to our country because of a need to provide their families with food and other basic necessities that they couldn’t get in their homelands. We rejoiced with them about their close-nit families and the ways in which they have made important contributions to local economies by working faithfully at low-paying jobs that Anglos would no longer take.

So, my proposed strategy for winning the marathon is this: Get to know your immigrant neighbors and take whatever steps are necessary to encourage and enable your political representatives to get to know their immigrant constituents on a personal level. That will have a profound effect on who you vote into office and the political initiatives your legislators decide to promote. Implementing this strategy will take a long time and will not be easy. But running a marathon has never been easy.


Harold Heie chairs the Advocacy Group of the Center for Assistance, Service, and Advocacy (CASA) of Sioux County. This article was originally written for the “In All Things” blog at Dordt College (IA), where it was pubslished on August 25, 2015.