This week, I sat in a high school auditorium and watched our president address an issue of urgent moral significance: immigration reform. Thousands gathered from across the country, including DREAMers wearing their graduation caps and many people displaying their heritages from across the globe -- from Africa, South and Central America, Ireland, India.
As I took my seat, I felt a strong spirit of anticipation and hope fill the auditorium, as if every heart was saying "The time is now. Our communities yearn for justice. For family unity. For citizenship. For reform."
The president began by highlighting the broad consensus emerging, including the bi-partisan framework recently released in the Senate, where, he said, "a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America."
I know he's right. I have seen families divided, heard stories of children forcibly separated from their parents, felt the fear of friends awaiting loved ones crossing the desert. My congregation, along with the humanitarian agency Church World Service and the faith community at large, has responded to the need for immigration reform with prayer vigils, congressional meetings, phone calls and letters, and now we're calling louder than ever.
As President Obama recounted how today's immigration system is out of date, broken and holds us back instead of helping us grow, I could feel nods of agreement reverberating through the auditorium. Families have to wait decades to be reunited. Last year alone, more than 100,000 U.S. citizen children experienced the trauma of seeing a parent apprehended, detained and deported.
The president affirmed that immigrants are contributing members of our communities, caring for their families, looking out for their neighbors, woven into the fabric of our lives. I could feel chins rising and a growing sense of pride, because our president understands that each immigrant is a unique, valued child of God. All of our families are precious and need to be together. All of our dreams are real, and we need to affirm the contributions immigrants bring not only to the economy, but to the vitality of our communities.
Then there was a shift, a sense of disappointment, when the president called for additional border security and the mandatory expansion of an employment verification system. The emphasis placed on enforcement is unwarranted and unwelcome.
This administration has deported more individuals than any in history. The borders are secure. We're spending record amounts on fences, border patrol, surveillance and the separating of families. We need real reform -- a path to citizenship and reunited families -- not more punitive enforcement measures that have proven detrimental to communities.
The president's plan does distinguish itself from the Senate framework in a powerful and positive way: It does not make the pathway to citizenship contingent upon enforcement measures. This key difference makes the president's plan more workable and certainly more equitable. The future of our undocumented brothers and sisters should not be held hostage by insatiable calls for enforcement.
As the president stepped down from the podium, I silently prayed that members of Congress will act with moral courage to enact immigration reform this year, because our communities cannot wait.
With the president's words fresh on my heart, I realized that, in all the excitement, I still needed to find a way to the airport. As I tried to catch a cab, two young women offered me a ride. Bernice and Breanne, seniors at Del Sol High School and of Mexican heritage, were born here and have big dreams -- one wants to be a vet, the other wants to go to culinary school.
They told me how the president's words brought them hope. Bernice's dad was deported four years ago, and their family has suffered from this painful separation. They told me how proud they are to be Americans.
As they dropped me off, one said, "This is a day for the heart. Thank you for supporting our dreams and being part of this moment with us all." These two women, showing kindness and welcoming hospitality to me, a stranger, personify the best of what it means to be an American.
Now is the time. We all need to do our part, calling and meeting with our Senators and Representatives to urge them to support immigration reform. We all need to feel what those of us in Las Vegas felt. The time is now. Our communities yearn for justice. For family unity. For citizenship. For reform. Let's make this happen -- for Bernice, for Breanne, for all of us.