Civil Discourse: An Occasional Attempt to Restore Civility to Our Civic Discourse

By Roger Utnehmer                          

Immigration is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Missing, however, is the voice of clergy. Without the strong voice of religious leaders, the civil rights movement of the 1960's would never have been successful.

From open housing marches in Milwaukee led by Father James Groppi to the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was articulate and persistent advocacy by religious leaders that turned public opinion into support for voting rights, open housing and recognition of basic human dignity for all.

Today, our country is torn apart by the debate over immigration. Families are divided. Children are separated from parents. In Wisconsin, immigrant families live in constant fear. This tragedy is the fault of political leadership missing-in-action. And it is also the fault of silence from the religious leaders who have a moral imperative to speak out in defense of the least among us. If religious leaders would speak from their tradition of respect for human dignity, a preferential option for the poor and the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, it would be much more difficult for politicians to ignore finding a solution.

We may disagree about what that solution should be but the reality today in northeast Wisconsin is that immigrant labor is an essential component of a thriving economy. Removing undocumented immigrants would paralyze business and industry, especially agriculture. Ignoring the problem may be good politics but it is a moral failure and an economic disaster.

Those who believe we are created in the image of God are pained by the disrupted families, pervasive fear, political demagoguery, and marginalization that is being inflicted on our immigrant community. And by not speaking out against the racism and fear-mongering over immigration, we condone it by our silence.

I stand in support of those who strive for a better life and hope for the American dream. I esteem the family values evidenced by immigrants. Many in northeast Wisconsin send more than half their take-home pay back to families in Latin America. I applaud those who speak in defense of the immigrants and ask our religious leaders to speak with the same passion on their behalf as clergy did a generation ago in support of black Americans.

How we are treating immigrants is the imperative moral issue of this generation. The voice of our religious leaders will be a welcome addition to the discussion.

That's my opinion. I'd like to hear yours.

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