Immigrants with documents, and those without, occupy every space in the standing-room only gathering.
Civic and religious leaders wait their turn at the microphone to rally support and optimism for the passage of the DREAM Act, which would pave the way for undocumented students to achieve legal immigration status, expected to come for a vote in Congress in the next few weeks.
The event took place in St. Brigid’s Church in Brooklyn on Sunday, and the setting was no coincidence.
Religious leaders and institutions of all faiths are playing an increasingly high-profile role in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. They are Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, imams, rabbis – many of them Latino – hoping to influence, in a calming, conciliatory way, the upcoming vote in Congress on the DREAM Act.
They are sending emails and letters to their congregants, urging them to call and write to their congressional representatives and tell them to pass the DREAM Act, which stands for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
The presence of a pastor – the white collar, the message of love – tempers the defensiveness and tensions that often underlie discussions about illegal immigration, say those working for comprehensive immigration reform.
Religious leaders walk the corridors of the Capitol building, seeking an audience with members of Congress and their staffs to plead the case of undocumented youth, and why those driven to go to college should be given the chance to pay in-state tuition – as unlikely as many are to afford even that. They tell anyone who will listen that undocumented youth should not be punished because of the decisions of their parents.
They speak at immigration rallies around the nation, speaking about legislation that would grant an estimated 1.5 million undocumented children a chance to legalize their status as crucial to the biblical duty to help the most vulnerable, most needy among us.
And political leaders who are trying to gain support for legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – a notion that is highly controversial across the nation – are welcoming the role of the church and pastors, the power of the pulpit, in helping them in their fight.
“The role of the clergy, of the church, is critical,” Congressman Luís Gutiérrez (D) of Illinois, said after the Brooklyn rally. “It’s an institution that is organized.”
Historically, he said, the church has been in defense of the community, and its "loyalty to the community is known.”
“And who’s going to fight with them?” asked Gutiérrez.
Rev. Miguel Rivera, the influential head of the National Coalition Of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, which represents 20,000 churches in the nation, said he and other pastors have ringside seats to the consequences of the broken immigration system.
“These are the people who sit in our pews, these are the people who one day don’t have their mother or father or wife or husband because they have been detained by immigration officials or deported,” Rivera said. “It’s is skin-deep for pastors, we see the tears, we hear the cries, we see the devastation in the faces of the children. It is not an abstract political topic for us."
Like many highly influential pastors, Rivera gets fast access to the some of the most powerful leaders in Congress.
“There’s a real problem because of a broken immigration system that is separating families,” Rivera said, “and deporting people who want to correct their situation and contribute -- yet makes it difficult for them to earn their legal papers.”
As repeated efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform have failed, proponents of immigration reform are taking a piece, the DREAM Act, and setting their sights on passage of that bill during the lame duck session – a long-shot but, they say, their only real shot right now.
The DREAM Act would give a path to citizenship to undocumented students who came as minors, have lived in the United States at least five years, demonstrated good moral character, and complete college or at least two years of military service. It would allow illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates, instead of out-of-state rates, which tend to be at least twice as expensive.
Critics say that it rewards couples who broke the law in coming to the United States.
They say that supporters of the DREAM Act are playing on the sympathies of the public by making it seem like a children’s issue. These students are law-breakers, they argue, and their parents put them in the position they are in now.
"The DREAM Act represents a dual assault on law-abiding, taxpaying American citizens and legal immigrants," said Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is expected to become the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a congressional blog earlier this year. "Once the DREAM Act's recipients become citizens and turn 21, they can sponsor their illegal immigrant parents for green cards. The true size of the amnesty could number in the millions."
Republicans will take the majority in the House of Representatives in January and they already have vowed to block bills that provide “amnesty,” and to push ones that crack down on illegal immigrants.
Archbishop Jose Gómez, a California clerical leader who spoke at a pro-DREAM Act rally on Friday in Washington D.C., says pastors are reaching out to congressional leaders to urge them to take a Christian approach to illegal immigration.
“Immigration reform is part of our faith,” Gomez said. “It’s a biblical concept, it’s the lesson of Jesus for Christians. We need to love our neighbor, help out the poorest.”
“They are our future,” said Gómez, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, of undocumented students. “These are young people, they came from other countries and they’ve been here since children.”
Rev. Walter Coleman, who works with Gutiérrez on religious and field outreach, said immigration has brought clergy together.
“Clergy of different faiths have not always worked well together, or even spoken to one another, and sometimes work against one another. But we have come together on immigration."
The partnership between conservative clergy and liberal lawmakers on the fight for immigration legislation that would help the undocumented is, indeed, an unlikely one on significant levels. Many of the pastors and political leaders joining forces on immigration are polar opposites on issues regarding such things as abortion and gay rights.
“We have conservative perspectives on a lot of different issues,” said Rev. Derrick Harkins, the senior pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington D.C.
Harkins was one of two leading authors of a June “Letter from African-American and Hispanic Pastors in Support of Immigration Reform to the President and Members of Congress.”
“But we come together on this because this is an important moral issue,” Harkins said.