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'Immigration reform' is just the beginning

Suddenly, everyone is courting "immigration reform." The 2012 elections unveiled the changing face of America, and this new sensation is causing quite the stir. What a spectacle to see the starry-eyed suitors scramble, now that the long-scorned outcast is revealed to be the belle of the ball.

But let's not be under any illusions about some politicians' newfound ardent desire for immigration reform. Their talk show chatter bespeaks the danger of fickleness. America needs deeper change if immigration is to be a love match and not a marriage of convenience. That's why immigration reform, by itself, is not the answer.

True, the time has certainly arrived to come together and create a fair and just immigration process. Reform must include a legalization program for undocumented immigrants living in America. It must also allow families at risk of being separated to stay together; safeguard refugees and asylum seekers in the United States; and treat all migrants with fairness, justice and dignity.

I stand with all who are looking to our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, to deliver these common-sense and humane immigration laws. We will speak out for that kind of reform and hold our elected officials to account. But a great deal more is needed for this country to put aside bitterness, truly make peace with immigration, and restore our long tradition as a country of immigrants that lifts high a torch for all those "yearning to breathe free."

Better laws are critically needed but insufficient; we need to rediscover our roots to fundamentally reform the way we think about migrants and immigration. In short, we need to redefine the welcome that we give to new Americans.

True welcome means more than allowing individuals to legally cross our borders; it means embracing new Americans in a way that plays to all of our strengths. For that, we must begin by remembering our own immigrant roots and connecting our own story to that of others. Once again we can be a people who want immigrants to be our new neighbors, and recognize how they enrich our lives and communities. We know that, when given an authentic welcome, immigrants have become successful entrepreneurs and drivers of economic growth. That's why Baltimore has rolled out the red carpet to thousands of immigrant families and aims to attract more. I am proud to say that my hometown is redefining welcome.

We can accomplish this welcome all across this land. America has proven over the centuries that greatness, even world leadership, is within the grasp of a nation of immigrants. While the Old World powers were scoffing at us as upstarts, we were busy building what would be the world's preeminent example of strength through diversity. These are the traditions that unite us and define us, and they can breathe life into whatever reforms might emerge in 2013.

So I say, let the courtship proceed, so that everyone has a chance to be seen with immigration reform on their arm. Let new laws be drafted that embody our proud heritage of liberty and justice for all. But we are called upon to do more: to embrace immigrants in ways that fulfill the promise and possibility of those new laws.

What is meant here by "embrace"? Besides the welcoming attitude the word implies — which can only really take root when individuals adopt it — that embrace takes concrete form at the community level. Cities around the country would do well to follow Baltimore's lead by setting explicit policies that welcome immigrants and make it easier for them to settle down. Congregations can make a difference, too: There's great value in dedicating a few intentional moments of a service or study time to encouraging people to connect with their immigrant neighbors. School systems and curricula have their own pivotal role. From universities to kindergartens, teachers of tolerance are vitally needed. Making wise policies, as Maryland voters did on Election Day by approving in-state tuition for hard-working young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria, can help increase this tolerance.

In short, we need not just comprehensive federal immigration reform but also an embracing attitude to match. Then we'll have true welcome and true reform.

Linda Hartke is president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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