The Rev. Denise Griebler was on a bus with about 60 undocumented immigrants, chained at the wrists, ankles and waist. She was praying with them in Spanish right before the bus left for O'Hare International Airport, where the prisoners would board a plane and be dropped off at the Mexico border with $20 from the Mexican Embassy and the clothes on their back. A young man at the back of the bus asked the pastor of West Chicago's St. Michaels UCC if she could pray in English, as the 20-year-old had been brought to the United States when he was 18 months old, didn't know a word of Spanish, and had never really been to Mexico.
"What's your name?" Griebler asked him. "My name is Mike, but I guess it's Miguel now," he replied.
"These are the types of people who are being deported," she said. "At that point, I just pray with them and offer them words of hope, solidarity and faith."
Griebler has been actively involved with immigration reform for the past 30 years. In addition to her personal activism providing pastoral care for people in detention, her congregation is also a member of the Immigrant Welcoming Congregations of the Fox Valley, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders, congregations and communities in the West Chicago area called by faith to respond actively and publicly to the suffering of immigrants. In the past few months, St. Michael's UCC has hosted a "Know Your Rights" workshop, and also maintains a clothing closet which provides 500-1,000 articles of clothing each month, primarily to the community's Latino population.
But the work is "small potatoes" compared to the severity of the problem, Griebler said. As immigration reform and legislation like the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act infiltrate the news, the need for large-scale education and awareness has never been greater. Despite St. Michael's open and affirming stance, there is a sense of division between the congregation's Latino and white populations that Greibler credits to old-fashioned misunderstanding. Out of the congregation's 100 members, she has about 10 who are actively engaged with the issue of immigration reform. The rest seem, well, confused.
"Some of it is a difficultly understanding why people can't just get in line," Greibler said of the traditional governmental process of applying for citizenship. "No matter how many times it's said, the rules have changed to the extent that it just doesn't work like that anymore."
While the issue of immigration is nothing if not complicated, Greibler says that much of the complication is driven by U.S. economic and foreign policies. For example, certain legislation, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), gives countries like the United States easy access to new markets and inexpensive land and labor. Big industry replaces things like small, community-based farms which provided native people a living, leaving them no choice but to look for work in places like the U.S. Once they are here, if they try to apply for citizenship, there is a good chance they will be imprisoned or deported before the process, which can take 10-15 years, is ever completed, she said.
"It means that the people who live [in Latin America] can no longer exist the way they used to," Greibler said. "What are people supposed to do when they can't make a living anymore? They come to the U.S. as farm workers and send money back to their families.
"If they've come without documentation, there is no way to remedy that situation," she continued. "You can't say ‘I'm going to apply for citizenship' and get in line because you wind up being imprisoned and deported if you get in that line."
The Immigrant Welcoming Congregation of the Fox Valley's next project is an educational campaign about the DREAM Act. It's geared toward educating the non-immigrant population about what the legislation means, and educating the immigrant population on how the law can benefit them. Griebler hopes that her congregation's involvement with the Fox Valley organization will continue to open their hearts and also clear up some of the confusion surrounding the issue of immigration. While the work is slow, she has learned over time to be more thankful for small victories and trust that they mean more than they used to.
"My personal goal is that I become a more committed follower of Jesus and that my congregation does as well," she said. "I hope they become not just more welcoming, but willing to throw their lot in with the people who always find themselves at the bottom or on the outside."