Religious groups deep in NM driver's license fight

September 9, 2011 - 6:50 PM
Immigration Religion

FILE - This Sept. 6, 2011 file photo shows protestors during a news conference organized by immigrant advocates at the Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., who want New Mexico to keep a law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Churches and religious groups are jumping into the debate over a state law that allowed those in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. The New Mexico Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Unitarian Universalists, among other groups, are helping with protests and lobbying efforts to block Gov. Susana Martinez's effort to repeal the law. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Churches and religious groups opposing the governor's renewed push to repeal a law allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses say their actions are part of a larger and growing advocacy effort aimed at promoting immigration reform on moral grounds.

Organizations like the New Mexico Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Albuquerque Interfaith were among those in Santa Fe this week to protest Gov. Susana Martinez's efforts to rescind the state law. They argue the measure helps one of the state's most vulnerable populations.

For months, these coalitions of interfaith groups have called on their members to attend rallies in New Mexico's capital city.

Leaders have written letters and opinion pieces in newspapers. Members have organized vigils outside city halls as councilors debate resolutions in favor of the repeal. And they've all encouraged immigrants, regardless of status, to make the political debate a moral one.

"We draw our inspiration from scripture," said Nancy Phillips, a member of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, an Albuquerque-based group of lay people and clergy from different denominations.

"The Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament said if you wanted to get right with God, you have to help the poor, you have to help the stranger," Phillips said. "That's what we're doing."

Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Catholic Conference of Bishops, said the bishops usually shy away from political activity. "But on this issue, they feel they have no choice," Sanchez said. "And when they jump in, they jump in."

Martinez, fulfilling a 2010 campaign promise, is pressuring the Legislature to end New Mexico's policy of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Lawmakers rejected the plan earlier this year, but the Republican governor wants them to tackle the measure during the special session on redistricting.

Martinez and other critics of the law contend it jeopardizes public safety and attracts illegal immigrants who fraudulently claim to live in the state only to get ID cards.

But immigrant advocates say the law allows more drivers to be insured in the state and helps law enforcement obtain needed safety data. Religious leaders say repealing the law now is cruel and would create fear among those living illegally in the country.

Advocacy around immigration is nothing new for some churches and religious groups. During the 1980s, churches were actively involved in helping refugees from Central American wars. And synagogues and Jewish organizations have long helped refugees from Asia and the former Soviet Union.

For some of these groups, advocacy tapered off only to be revived in recent years as the debate over immigration reform has become a national issue.

Christine Sierra, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said religious groups' recent participation in New Mexico has encouraged immigrants to attend rallies with a higher purpose and without fear.

"They frame the issue as a social justice issue, and that's powerful," said Sierra, who also is active with the Albuquerque Interfaith. "They have the power to mobilized immigrants and get them to join in."

Some area religious activists say they were influenced by Marshall Ganz, a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer and a former organizer with the late Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers movement. Ganz has trained hundreds of students, religious leaders and activists on civil disobedience, storytelling and media outreach.

Among those in New Mexico to be trained by Ganz is the Rev. Angela Herrera, assistant minister of the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque. Herrera said her church recently formed a social justice task force on immigration. First Unitarian members lobbied state lawmakers Friday. "It is a social justice issue for us," Herrera said.

Kip Bobroff, lead organizer for Albuquerque Interfaith, said leaders of congregations want to go beyond just lobbying lawmakers.

Last week, ministers from the group held "preach-and-teach" events at churches and synagogues aimed at educating members on immigration issues. He said around 12,000 people heard about immigration in sermons, homilies, and Sunday school classes.

"Immigrants are part of our institutions, our communities and our congregations," Bobroff said. "All you have to do is read the New Testament and the Hebrew scripture to know we have to welcome our neighbor."

___

Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras