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Thousands rally on Capitol Hill to protest immigration bill

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A UMNS photo by Rick Reinhard

United Methodist Bishop Forrest Stith prays at an interfaith service during the immigration reform rally in Washington.
March 9, 2006

By Christine Kumar*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) — United Methodists and others rallying against an immigration reform bill said they wouldn’t let the threat of jail stop them from doing ministry with undocumented immigrants.

“Yo no soy un criminal (I am not a criminal),” said the Rev. David Rocha, coordinator of Hispanic ministries at the Baltimore-Washington Conference and pastor of Camina Da Vida United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, Md.

Rocha was reacting to a proposal working its way through Congress this month that could penalize people like him with hefty fines and jail time for working with undocumented immigrants.

However, he told the Washington Times later, “We are here to send a clear message that we are ready to disobey this law.”

Rocha joined more than an estimated 10,000 people protesting at a March 7 rally at the U.S. Capitol to oppose H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. The bill was introduced last December by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Peter T. King, R-N.Y. The bill calls for fencing 700 miles along the Mexican border and includes a provision that could result in a five-year jail sentence for anyone who helps undocumented immigrants.

An estimated 7 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. Undocumented immigrants hold 400,000 jobs, contribute $90 billion in taxes and use $5 billion in public services, according to advocates. The bill passed the House late last year and goes to the Senate this month.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Rick Reinhard

Handcuffed for effect, the Rev. David Rocha speaks against the proposed criminalization of working with illegal immigrants.
At a press conference at the United Methodist Building across the street from the Capitol, many advocates and clergy wore handcuffs to show how this legislation would shackle their efforts to serve undocumented immigrants.

The demonstration, organized by the National Capital Immigration Coalition, drew crowds from California, Arizona, Texas, New Jersey and New York. “We come here to work, not to take,” the crowd shouted at different times during the rally.

Protesters also chanted and held up signs that read “We want justice” and “No human being is illegal.” Many adults and children waved U.S. flags.

Bishop John R. Schol, leader of the United Methodist Church’s Washington Area, issued a statement based on the church’s Social Principals and Book of Resolutions, noting that immigration is not a simple issue.

“If passed, H.R. 4437 could dramatically affect the way United Methodists do ministry,” the bishop stated. “H.R. 4437 would punish United Methodists and others ? who offer an act of mercy or kindness to undocumented immigrants. Our immigration policy as a nation is flawed and needs to be fixed. It is a matter of human dignity and human justice.”

The crowd included the Rev. Dean Snyder of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, and Glen Strickler, who works in ministry with Rocha at Camina Da Vida.

Snyder went to the rally with 30 day laborers to support the opposition. Foundry does an active ministry with day laborers. “These are the people we have grown to love and respect, and they work so hard,” Snyder said.

He addressed the issue of immigration during worship at Foundry March 5. “I am confident that at Foundry, no one will be denied any services we provide because of their immigrant status, even if it were to be made illegal by Congress,” Snyder said at the worship service. The congregation responded with applause.

“This was an encouraging day,” Strickler said. “I didn’t expect so many people to turn up. It was nice to see others, like doctors, want to continue giving aid.”

Clergy from different denominations led an interfaith service to affirm that God is in the midst of this issue. People carried colorful banners and flags with words such as “hope,” “justice,” “unity,” “diversity,” “love” and “faith” written in different languages. Each prayer was followed by drumming, and the community shouted, “We welcome the stranger in this land.”

Those offering prayers included retired United Methodist Bishop Forrest Stith.

“You (God) will provide for us, with or without Congress and the White House,” he prayed. The people cheered as it was interpreted in Spanish. Stith also prayed that, “God will always abide with us, for us, beside us and for us.”

*Kumar is a staff reporter for the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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