05/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Reform Requires Grassroots Action

This week, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated immigration reform legislation is "dead" in the Senate this year. "When I say immigration's dead in the Senate, risk-aversion abounds," Graham said during a press conference this week. Graham added the consequences of this vote are going to be long lasting politically.

Graham's statement was based on the recently passed healthcare legislation, which he viewed, "poisoned the well" for bipartisanship on any future legislation during this session.

Graham may be right in his assessment, but it is fair to conclude that the well of bipartisanship has been poisoned for some time. As comedian Jimmy Kimmel opined this week, Republicans announcing they could not work with Democrats is akin to Wile E. Coyote issuing a press release that he can no longer work with the Road Runner.

But we can assume from Graham's words that immigration reform is probably dead this year.

It is dead because two Herculean efforts by Congress in the same session are normally not within its DNA. Moreover it unlikely any legislator will risk his or her political career for illegal aliens under the current political climate.

The outburst, by the small right-wing fringe, and the commitment of congressional Republicans to not participate with Democrats in crafting future legislation this session in the wake the health care law passed this week are the best indicators we're still in dire need of a political change of direction.

There are generally three aspects to change as it relates to public policy. First, change invariably begins as the minority opinion.

Second change can only coexist with discomfort. The confidence fortified by being part of the status quo must give way if change is to occur.

The third as aspect to change requires that it not begin on Capitol Hill but it flows through arduous, frustrating, and unpredictable path forged by local communities.

There is a momentum, as indicated by last week's protest in Washington, for humane immigration policy methodically making its way to Congress that is not dominated by the hatred of Minute Men or Tea Baggers. It is a coalition that is as diverse as the nation, including what one might think to be a surprising group: African American pastors.

Last week, members of the African American Clergy United for Just Immigration Reform held a press conference at the Ron Dellums Federal Building in Oakland.

Under the leadership of Rev. Phillip Lawson and Servant B.K. Woodson these ministers are concerned with advocating for a policy that transcends the cacophony of sound bites. People for the American Way's African American Religious Affairs Committee are planing similar press conferences throughout the nation on April 5.

Though immigration is not perceived as their issue per se, the legacy of these African American pastors, descendants of a forced immigration policy, makes them sensitive to the exploitable nature of the current system.

They wish to move the discussion out of the cowardly quagmire that is more concerned with overt hatred of those on the margins than examining the complexity of the issue in its entirety.

Immigrants would not cross the border illegally if they were not being hired to work. Moreover, employers hire them not because they will do work that others will not do, but rather they are economically exploitable.

Why is the lion's share of the animosity seemingly focused more on those who are looking for work than those who exploit cheap labor?

The current broken immigration policy is hardly a reflection of America at its best. Who benefits by maintaining a policy that is more successful at dividing families? I thought the family represented the nucleus of stability in our society.

What the immigration reform efforts going forward are in need of is rational discourse. How do we distinguish from what may be legitimate concerns surrounding homeland security and families separated and economically exploited?

But it seems difficult to believe a judicious conversation can be had about immigration when a member of Congress yells at President Obama, "you lie," when the president, before a joint session, made it clear the health care reform will not cover those who enter the country against our permission.

If the current climate has many of those on Capitol Hill risk adverse to immigration reform as Sen. Graham claims, the discomforting change at the grass roots is where they can regain the requisite courage to do the people's business.

We must have an immigration policy that is fair and upholds the best of American values.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at or visit his Web site: