Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God. Micah 6:8
Each summer, the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church brings together a group of outstanding college-age students and sets them to work to live out the words of Micah 6:8. Over the course of 10 long and productive weeks, the Micah Corps interns tackle the tough social justice issues of our day through prayer, study and, most significantly, action.
Leaving their home base of North Omaha, this year’s team came to Washington, D.C., to advocate for laws and policies that positively impact the issues important to them—poverty, food security, nonviolence, the environment and immigration.
Led by Andrea Paret, Great Plains Peace with Justice Coordinator and a tireless advocate for Justice For Our Neighbors Nebraska, four of these excellent young people prepared to lobby their Nebraska representatives on various immigration issues.
Ama Agyabeng, from Ghana, is a rising senior at Iowa’s Ashford University. She hopes to go on to medical school next year. Amy Kenyon, a native Nebraskan, plans to teach high school English when she finishes her studies. She believes her Micah Corps experience will help her become a better teacher. Ella Sherman is intense, passionate, and very smart. This is her second year with the Micah Corps and her first opportunity to really focus on immigration issues. Elysee Mahangama, soft-spoken and thoughtful, studies industrial systems technology in Atlanta. He has been focused on peace and non-violence issues this summer, particularly significant for a young man coming from the Republic of the Congo.
“Back home, it’s kind of impossible to meet with someone in power and voice your concerns,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “If you express an opposing opinion you might find yourself in the hospital.”
See the Hill, Take the Hill
It’s a hot July day as we walk past the Supreme Court and toward the Cannon House Office Building.
Ella is recounting some of the conversations she and her fellow interns have had with people about migrants coming across the border. The “us vs. them” mindset of too many Americans, she says, has effectively stripped these immigrants of their humanity.
“We don’t think about people dying in the desert. We don’t think about the women and children seeking asylum.” Ella adds, “We also don’t consider that immigrants who come here oftentimes don’t want to.”
People look at the pictures of the harsh conditions at the border, she says, and seem genuinely perplexed. “Why would these migrants do that to themselves?” they demand. “Why would they put their children in so much danger?”
“You’re right,” is Ella’s answer. “It was a horrible experience. Why do you think they would take that risk?”
Fighting the Good Fight
Our first stop is the office of Rep. Brad Ashford, (D-NE 02) representing the greater Omaha metropolitan area. The Micah Corps interns have an appointment with the congressman’s legislative director (LD).
Ama takes the lead, asking for the congressman’s support for HR 2798: The Strengthening Refugee Resettlement Act of 2015. Ama, graceful and poised, reads her prepared talking points, powerfully representing the values that require us to support all families, both immigrant and non-immigrant.
Others chime in, reminding us that Nebraska has become a magnet for many refugee communities, including the mostly-Christian Karen ethnic minority of Burma, fleeing persecution and violence in their home country.
A bill to streamline refugee processing abroad and provide resources for them to more quickly integrate into their new communities may not seem very controversial. In the present congressional climate, however, anything that smacks of immigration appears to have little hope of getting very far.
The interns then ask the LD about the future of immigration reform in general. They’re very good. Remembering their training (provided by our friends at the General Board of Church and Society) they pause frequently to listen and give the LD plenty of opportunity to talk.
The LD is sympathetic, but his prognosis for comprehensive immigration reform isn’t an encouraging one.
“This is one issue which will not go anywhere,” he says. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s the right thing to do and the system we have in place obviously does not work.”
They are, however, not to give up hope, he tells them emphatically. “It has to change,” he says. “We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road.”
Our next stop is the office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE 01), representing Lincoln and other areas of Eastern Nebraska. We meet with his senior legislative assistant (LA).
Amy, the future teacher, tells us that Lincoln has 32 languages spoken in its public schools and that no school district in Nebraska is without its share of immigrant students. Both Lincoln and Omaha—the two major cities in Nebraska—are centers for refugee relocation, including those fleeing horrific violence from Sudan and South Sudan.
Rep. Fortenberry’s LA quickly points out that her boss is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan and is the author of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. She promises to give the congressman their information about the Refugee Resettlement bill.
As for the undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, she tells the interns that border security is the most pressing problem. Her prediction for the future of meaningful immigration reform is decidedly bleak.
“The issue,” she tells these young people so full of hope and promise, “is too polarized and too politicized.”
The Light of the World
The meetings are over. The Micah Corps interns are kept very busy, and it’s time for them to move on to the next activity. Although they didn’t receive any optimistic news from either office, they don’t view the day as a defeat. This was their first time in a sit-down meeting on Capitol Hill. It won’t be their last. They aren’t giving up and they are definitely coming back.
They are still talking excitedly about their meetings as they walk back to their home base at the Methodist Building.
“Amazing experience,” says Ella. She looks ready to take on the world.
“Incredible,” Elysee agrees. “To be able to voice your concerns at any time and for someone to listen.” He stops as we wait at the crosswalk. The U.S. Capitol, the shining beacon for freedom and democracy, is right above us. Once again, the building is undergoing some much-needed renovations. The dome is covered in ugly scaffolding.
Yet it remains the City on the Hill.
“It’s such a wonderful opportunity that Americans have,” Elysee says. “They shouldn’t take it for granted.”