Calling for just and humane immigration reform, the Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights on Wednesday declared February a month of fasting and prayer to protest proposed legislation that would make it illegal for churches and other organizations to assist undocumented workers.
"I dare Los Angeles to get by one day without immigration," said Father Michael Kennedy, whose church shelters 50 to 60 people, most of whom are illegal immigrants. "Who's going to pick the crops, and who's going to clean the hotels?" About 600 of Kennedy's 2,000 parishioners have volunteered to abstain from eating at least one day during the monthlong chain fast, Kennedy said. Some students from Loyola Marymount University also will participate, he said.
The protest is aimed at legislation proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that would expand the definition of "smuggling" to anyone who "assists" or "directs" an illegal immigrant to reside or remain in the the U.S. Violations could lead to five years in prison.
Sensenbrenner's office said the law would not make criminals of aid groups. But church officials fear it would give authorities great latitude to go after religious or human rights groups. The Senate is expected to debate the issue this month.
"The bill is unjust," said the Most Rev. Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, because it would view as criminals "anyone who provides assistance to undocumented immigrants, such as priests, doctors, social workers, even family members."
Church leaders would prefer that Congress adopt policies that would legalize undocumented immigrants, reunite families and create labor protections for workers like Jose Luis Aguilar, one of those who found shelter at the Dolores Mission sanctuary.
Aguilar left his wife and 5-month-old daughter in Mexico City four months ago to seek work in the United States. He traveled by bus to Tijuana, then sneaked across the border on foot, with the goal of finding work before sending for his family.
"We come here by necessity," Aguilar said in Spanish. "It's not a sin to come and look for a better life."
But supporters of increased border security and the Sensenbrenner bill say church leaders have overstepped their bounds in assisting illegal immigrants and that their actions only encourage others to break the law.
"You can be kind to foreigners in a strange land," said Lupe Moreno, president of Latinos for Immigration Reform. "But you're not supposed to be helping people who are breaking the law and sinning."
Arturo Laris, a 26-year-old pastoral assistant at Dolores Mission who was born in Mexico, said he knows firsthand the struggle of undocumented workers seeking to escape poverty.
He said his father had been a coyote, someone who is paid to bring illegal immigrants across the border.
Laris said his father never made much money at the enterprise but rather spent a lot of time helping those who were less fortunate.
Church leaders, whose parish has a long history of social activism, have planned events to draw attention to their campaign, including a Friday evening vigil at City Hall and rallies at the Republican and Democratic national committee offices Feb. 9.