The plight of undocumented immigrants weighs so heavily on Grace Bunker's mind, it often keeps her up at night. The member of Casas Adobes Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., is exposed to what she calls glaring injustices every day in her church, her community and even her own backyard. Deciding she could no longer sit on the sidelines, Bunker has joined other immigration advocates to raise awareness, debunk the stereotypes, and generate support for the area's immigrants who need it most.
"You can't read the papers or listen to the news without being aware of the injustices these people face," she said. "They are picking on the most vulnerable people. I can't sleep comfortably in my bed after hearing some of the things that go on."
Bunker says her desire to help others is in her blood. A fourth-generation missionary, she grew up in Sri Lanka as the daughter of missionaries and then went to missionary school in India. She settled in Tucson in 1992, and returned to Sri Lanka as a Global Ministries missionary from 2001 to 2005. But when she got back to Tucson, she noticed some changes when it came to immigration. Rules were stricter, security was tighter, and the government was cracking down.
"In the 1990s, things were beginning to become difficult, but I wasn't very aware of it," she said. "Ten years later, it's there. You really can't live here now without being aware."
Bunker became really interested in immigrant rights after attending the UCC Southwest Conference's annual meeting last year, which focused on immigration. She then attended a workshop about how Casas Adobes UCC could become an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation and was hooked. Bunker has since become increasingly involved with local humanitarian groups, such as Stop Streamline, a group that works to end Operation Streamline, an enforcement program that criminalizes immigrants for crossing the border – sometimes as many as 70 per day.
"I attended one of the court procedures and was chilled by what I saw," Bunker said.
Bunker also works closely with a Global Ministries missionary in the Mexican border city of Nogales, Sonora. Together, they have organized visits to the area for members of Casas Adobes UCC to meet migrants who have been returned to Mexico after unsuccessful attempts to cross the border and hear their stories of desperation. During these trips, they also visit a local community center that works with women and children of Nogales to help them earn a living in Mexico so they will not feel the need to cross the border illegally. About 20 members from Casas Adobes UCC visited the area during trips in February and March.
"Everyone who went was enlightened, moved, distressed," Bunker said. "Some said it was a life-changing experience."
Also in March, Casas Adobes UCC hosted a panel discussion on immigration with the Rev. John Dorhauer, Southwest Conference minister; the Nogales Global Ministries missionary; a representative from Humane Borders; and a local undocumented activist, which drew about 70 attendees. In April, the congregation hosted the Rev. John Fife, founder of three humanitarian groups currently working in the Arizona desert.
Bunker hopes to schedule more speakers in the future, and is especially interested in hearing the perspective of Border Patrol and ranchers who live on the border. She is also working to implement a program at the Nogales community center to teach local women sewing skills to help them earn a living.
"This idea is in its infancy at the moment but we have high hopes for it," she said. "We hope to get others in the congregation interested in helping in other ways over the next months."
One of Bunker's main goals in her work is to educate her congregation about the injustices occurring to the immigrants in their community. With assistance from Dorhauer, she would also like Casas Adobes UCC to officially become an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation. But most of all, she wants to dispel the stereotype that most immigrants come to America for free handouts and to take advantage of the political system, a notion she says is simply not true.
"Because we are part of the border community, we would like church members to recognize and support the idea that Mexicans should be able to come and go freely so they can contribute to the U.S. economy," she said. "They are not a drag on it the way a lot of people think they are.
"People think immigrants are trying to get into the U.S. to live here and take advantage of everything here, but in fact, that's not true," Bunker continued. "They want to be able to come and work, then return back to Mexico. They wouldn't stay here if it wasn't that, if they leave, they may not be able to get back. They just want to feed their families."
The UCC has a long history of affirming the dignity of immigrants and working for comprehensive U.S. immigration policy. Since 1995, General Synod – the main deliberative body of the UCC – has repeatedly called for a fair and human approach to U.S. immigration policy that protects families and respects the humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.