The music has a deafening buoyancy, but as congregants step forward to speak, their testimony is heavy with foreboding and sorrow. They tell of families terrorized and split apart.
A young woman from Pakistan describes humiliating conditions at a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., where she was sent with her mother and ailing father. A mother tells of her son, an Army sergeant and citizen, losing his wife to deportation. A Mexican man, with theatrical defiance, waves a shoe at the unnamed forces that have thwarted his desire to legalize.
It is hard to appear sinister in a church, and the congregation at Iglesia La Sinagoga, a center of Pentecostalism on 125th Street in East Harlem, seemed utterly ordinary. But as undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, they are the main targets of the Bush administration’s immigration war.
Families like theirs have endured a relentless campaign of intimidation and expulsion, organized at the top levels of the federal government and haphazardly delegated to state and local governments.
The campaign has been disproportionate and cruel. The evidence is everywhere.
On Monday, The Times reported that federal immigration prosecutions had soared in the last five years, overloading federal courts with misdemeanor cases of illegal border crossers, who are tried and sentenced in groups of 40 to 60 for efficiency. At the same time, prosecutions for weapons, organized crime, public corruption and drugs have plummeted. The Arizona attorney general called the situation “a national abdication by the Justice Department.”
And last week, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in an appalling last-minute ruling, declared that immigrants do not have the constitutional right to a lawyer in a deportation hearing and thus have no right to appeal on the grounds of bad legal representation. Mr. Mukasey overturned a decades-old practice designed to ensure robust constitutional protection for immigrants — one needed now more than ever in the days of the Bush administration’s assembly-line prosecutions.
The event at the Pentecostal church was organized by local ministers and Democratic politicians to spur the cause of immigration reform this year.
It could be a difficult case to make. We heard far too little about the need for immigration reform from President-elect Barack Obama during the general election — and virtually nothing from the nation’s leaders since then. But the United States cannot afford to put immigration on a back burner and merely continue with the existing enforcement regime. The costs are too high for the country’s values. And they are too high for the economy.
Defending immigrants’ rights defends standards in all workplaces. Workers who are terrorized into submission, in families that are destroyed by deportation and raids, are more likely to undercut other workers by tolerating low pay and miserable job conditions.
Restoring proportionality and good sense to the criminal justice system also would free up resources for fighting serious crimes. Most important, repairing a system warped by political priorities into hunting down and punishing the wrong people — like those bringing their suffering to a Pentecostal church — would help restore a sense of what the country stands for, and remind us of who we are.