WASHINGTON - The Rev. Eve Nunez cried Thursday as she told a Capitol Hill audience that "it hurts to be a pastor" in Arizona, where ministers often have to help families that have been separated by deportation.
Nunez, the president and founder of the Arizona Latino Commission, was one of dozens of faith leaders in Washington to lobby for immigration reform and an end to deportations in the meantime.
"We need to do the right thing, not because of the vote, but because of the life," Nunez said to the gathering of pastors from Illinois, California, Texas and New York.
Nunez and others stressed the importance of bipartisanship, noting that former President Ronald Reagan was a champion for immigration reform. But at the end of the day, she said, "Don't put your faith in a party. Put your faith in God," a comment that drew murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
It also largely drew the agreement of Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, two of the eight senators behind the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of 8" immigration bill.
"You are here to right wrongs," McCain said. "You are here to bring 11 million people (in this country illegally) out of the shadows."
McCain applauded the faith community for their work toward comprehensive immigration reform, adding that immigration "is an issue of faith."
Opponents of the Senate bill, which passed that chamber in June but has stalled in the House, have said that it does not do enough to secure the border, among other criticisms. But McCain challenged that claim Thursday.
"My friends, this secures the border in a way that has not been secured since the Berlin Wall came down," he said.
McCain said the Senate is willing to work with the House on immigration reform and urged House leaders to move forward on the process. House Speaker John Boehner has said that the House would chart its own course and would likely take up separate immigration issues rather than one comprehensive bill as the Senate has done.
But religious leaders said comprehensive immigration reform is not enough, especially considering that more than 1,000 people are deported every day. The president needs to halt deportations temporarily to ensure that families are not separated before legislation is enacted, they said.
McCain said "the law is the law" when it comes to deportations, and suggested that the best way to help families who might be hurt by deportation is to get immigration reform through the House as quickly as possible.
Flake said he understands the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Growing up on a ranch in northern Arizona and working alongside migrant laborers, he said he recognized early on how hard many worked.
"We have kids who are brought here for no fault of their own who need a chance to get an education," Flake said.
Nunez agreed, saying it is important to help the children of families who are here illegally. She said many of the children she works with at her Phoenix ministry, the Help 4 Kidz Foundation, are suicidal because family members have been deported.
Maite Arce, the executive director of the Hispanic Access Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, said immigration reform should address the needs of children who are growing up in Arizona.
"Their parents have left them, they're alone, they're in the foster care system," Arce said. "It's just heartbreaking."
She said dialogue between faith leaders and the community, like Thursday's gathering, is necessary in order to help children and to pass immigration reform.
"That voice is going to strengthen and grow," Arce said. "We're excited to participate in the political process."
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