From Phoenix to the President’s Doorstep

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Our colleague Elizabeth Dias files this dispatch:

Washington’s 102-degree heat is nothing new for the Arizona activists wrapping up a 24-hour prayer vigil at the White House. For 79 straight days—ever since SB1070 passed in April—several hundred faith and community leaders have knelt on the Arizona Capitol’s sweltering steps, praying for deliverance from Arizona’s looming immigration policy. Now, against all odds, they believe a miracle may be possible.

Hearing over the weekend that the U.S. Department of Justice would file suit against the law, the protesters quickly organized a 13-person Hispanic delegation to drive 2,301 miles to appeal to President Obama. Alejandra Valenzuela, a 2010 high-school graduate from an undocumented family, came to Arizona as a child after her father died of cancer. She hopes to attend Grand Canyon University in the fall but fears leaving her brother behind. “SB1070 is separating families and crushing people’s dreams, and that’s something that nobody should have the power to do,” Valenzuela told TIME. “I believe it is possible to stop laws like these and make a better for future for everyone, not only for undocumented, but also the citizens that are going to be affected.”

Agustina Flores, another undocumented delegate, has watched her church’s pews empty as families avoid police or move to neighboring states. “My family is going to stay because we believe and we have the faith that God is going to help us, and people are going to love us and they are going to see that we are not bad people,” she says.

On the three-day journey, members of Iglesia Episcopal Santa Maria Virgen in Oklahoma City waited hours after their service to welcome the travelers with a meal and money for gasoline. The convent at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock opened its doors to host them at 2 a.m. Memphis’s St. Peter’s prayed over their mission.

Despite the increasing volatility of the immigration debate, many Arizona Catholic and African-American churches lead the fight for reform.  One goal is to register Latino voters, in hopes of spurring pushback against the strict immigration policy. Activists remember that voters in California successfully changed the state’s political landscape when they fought the anti-immigration Proposition 187 of 1994.

As the vigil packs up today to return to Phoenix, Flores sums up the group’s message: justice for undocumented families must include forgiveness of lawmakers and enforcers. In her words, “We pray the Holy Father, which says, ‘Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us’ because we love everyone as a family, as our brothers and sisters, as the children of God.”

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