To play the parts of Joseph and an expectant Mary searching for shelter en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Sebastian Ortiz and Jenny Umana drew on their personal experience.
“These are the struggles our mothers and fathers had to go through,” said Ortiz, an East Boston High School junior, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador when he was 9. “I know what they suffered, and I know what they’re still suffering. They came here to make a better life for me and my brother and sisters. That’s what Mary and Joseph did.”
Ortiz and Umana led a procession of more than 300 immigrant rights activists Sunday in a march around the Boston Common, wearing stoic expressions as they were symbolically refused shelter at the State House and The Paulist Center on Park Street before finally finding sanctuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Tremont Street.
Beneath their flowing robes, sneakers stood in for sandals. A pony stood in for their donkey, and the streets of downtown Boston for the Holy Land.
Similarly, Ortiz and Umana say, the modern-day reality immigrants face in this country stands in for the biblical story, in which Joseph and Mary faced repeated rejection as they sought safe haven for their growing family.
“You read stories like this in the Bible, but if you don’t relate the lessons to what’s happening now, what does it matter?” questioned Umana, a senior at Boston Latin School.
The story is customarily re-enacted in Latin American communities during the holiday season. This year it was postponed due to a pair of mid-December snowstorms until Sunday, which marked Three Kings Day.
The story takes on a special significance following a year in which congressional leaders failed to enact immigration reform and presidential candidates used immigration as a political wedge issue, with virtually all of them declaring support for harsh measures against the undocumented.
The anti-immigrant sentiment on the campaign trail stands in stark contrast to the tolerance preached in the New Testament, according to activists who helped organize the procession.
“One of the founding tenets of our faith is to love each other — everyone — especially immigrants,” noted former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, now president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts. “There are many people who call themselves Christians who forget this.”
The year 2007 also saw a series of controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country that were roundly criticized for what many saw as flagrant violations of basic human rights — most notably the March 7, 2007, raid on the Michael Bianco Inc. textile factory, where ICE officers arrested 361 undocumented factory workers.
“When I read about the New Bedford raids, it made me cry,” Umana said. “They treated people like animals.”
The same anti-immigrant sentiment is playing out on the national stage, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani accusing each other of being soft on immigration during their respective terms in office.
With sympathy for the plight of immigrants in short supply, Joel Barrera, executive director of the Commonwealth Seminars, says the Bible’s message of caring for those in greatest need is lost in the current political climate.
“There’s a culture of meanness in the political culture that’s borderline racist and certainly intolerant,” he said. “At the end of the day, these are human beings.”
Despite rhetoric of the candidates, as Centro Presente Executive Director Maria Elena Letona points out, the anti-immigrant rhetoric doesn’t always score points with voters.
“It’s not working,” she said. “Look at the results of the Iowa caucuses. They’re using this issue to take the attention away from the real issues — the war, the economy, the fact that the people have no health care.”
While political candidates and conservative talk show hosts continue demonizing undocumented immigrants, there is an undercurrent of support for immigrant rights, according to Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Noorani pointed to the more than 300 people who turned out for the Three Kings Day demonstration, many of them from churches with predominantly white congregations, as proof that support for immigrants can grow.
“People from these congregations here today can learn about the immigrant experience and share that experience with their friends and families,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s one person or a thousand. We need to start to build these types of partnerships in a more intentional way. Today is an example of how that can be done.”