03/29/2011 11:29 am ET | Updated May 29, 2011

President Obama's Deeds: The Greatest Tribute to Martyred Romero

No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations. We want the government to understand seriously that reforms are worth nothing if they are stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, El Salvador
Homily of March 23, 1980, a day before he was assassinated

President Obama's recent Latin American tour whisked him and the First Family through Brazil, Chile and finally, the smallest nation in Central America, El Salvador. As many here and abroad looked for symbolism behind every step he took, it was a brief stop at the crypt of the Salvadoran prelate, assassinated 31 years ago, that caught my attention. What did it say, I wondered, about the thirst for El Salvador to establish a brotherly relationship with the United States after years of being looked askance at as the bastard cousin no one wants to invite for dinner? Most specifically, what did the president's visit to a nation that exports immigrants to the United States by the hundreds each and every day mean to the prospects of updated immigration laws?

There were calculated and cynical reasons why some say President Obama visited Romero's tomb: 1) to show the 215,000 Salvadorans expatriates under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and the close to a million more exiles currently living in the United States that he shares their pain. 2) To elevate his stature in the pope's eyes, given the Vatican's intentions to canonize Romero. Or 3) to dispel the charges by the left that he has shed his liberal ideals of the days right before he became the president of the United States of America.

Whatever the American president's real intentions to visit the grave site of the priest commonly referred to as "the voice of the voiceless," I would like to believe he was silently chastised by Archbishop Romero for not fulfilling his promise to immigrants in the United States that he would reform our immigration system within his first year in office. "Change takes courage, my son," he might have heard, "only by undoing itself does [the grain of wheat] produce the harvest." Beyond listening, will President Obama be the change we hoped he would be when millions voted for him? Will Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano be near President Obama's side when he regains his gumption on immigration?

Last week, Angelica Salas, executive director for CHIRLA joined a number of top-notch immigrant advocates in Washington, DC for a face-to-face chat with DHS Secretary Napolitano. At no other gathering during the past few years has it been more apparent that a stubborn and unhealthy disconnect exists between the suffering of millions of immigrants in the United States and the generally good government officials that enforce the broken and unjust laws that daily clash against reality. An effort to outdo Bush Jr. on immigration enforcement has so much permeated the thinking and dialectics of those at DHS, ICE, and the White House that compassion and discretion have been thrown out the window along with the proverbial bath water.

As the chorus of voices by immigrant leaders from throughout the United States countered the assumptions being made by Secretary Napolitano and her posse of advisors during the lively interchange, it was evident to us that the Obama administration has chosen to ignore creativity and accountability in order to demonstrate that toughness is a part of their genetic makeup. The pats on the back DHS seeks from anti-immigrants, conservative legislators, and fiscal hawks is the same stellar reward even those who know better on the ground also seek, in spite of the mounting proof of the human tragedy unfolding before their very eyes. It was surreal to hear Madam Napolitano utter statistical figure after statistical figure referring to the large number of deported "criminal aliens" all the while asserting the Administration is doing "good things" for the community. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin, would have chimed in Archbishop Romero after a long pause at this juncture.

What most worries Angelica and others is what appears to be the lack of even a flaccid acknowledgment that pain is being endured by many because of the sick obsession by a few to present exact numerical algorithms. No amount of so-called 'criminals' deported can exonerate this Administration from the inhumane treatment they are unleashing in our community. The administration's response, however, so far seems to be more I-9 audits, more deportations of so-called "criminal aliens," more imposition of the flawed E-verify program, and more confusing rhetoric around programs that turn local police officers into immigration hawks.

The prospects of more closed businesses, more people without jobs, more exploitation of immigrant workers, and a more dehumanizing darkness for the millions of immigrants who sought refuge in the Land of Freedom and Hope, is too daunting for any American to accept. This is why today, we call on the President and his Administration to heed his conscience and do what is right:

  1. Keep families together, Mr. President, by ending the deportations of parents of citizen children, DREAM-eligible youth and military veterans.
  2. Discontinue ICE programs that undermine the public safety of all communities, including I-9 audits, mandatory E-verify program, Secure Communities, and 287g agreements; and,
  3. Strengthen protections for all workers.

The president has returned from Latin America and is now in the midst of explaining what our nation's role in Libya will be. This is the same president, however, who has time and time again reminded us that he can chew and walk at the same time. Domestic affairs after all have a habit of turning into international ones. If, in parsing what he should say and do on immigration, he is in need of spiritual guidance, the president should only need to look as far back to his visit to Monsignor Romero's tomb. The martyred priest said he will be reborn in the people of El Salvador, but will the president of the United States of America redeem himself in a less saintly way? Will President Obama pay tribute to the martyred priest with deeds that elevate the poor and the vulnerable to the same light all God's children deserve or will his visit become one more unkept promise?

Angelica Salas, Executive Director at CHIRLA, contributed to this post.