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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly a dozen local religious leaders joined hands Saturday to bless a group of advocates traveling around the country to increase support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Their cry is for the families that are separated by deportation and for people who die in the desert trying to enter the country illegally.
"Our country has been founded by immigrants, has a history of welcoming and integrating immigrants and we will continue to be great as we acknowledge our heritage and be a nation whose shores are a welcome beacon for those on the move," said Salt Lake City Catholic Bishop John Wester.
Wester welcomed riders of the Fast for Families bus — one of two that is stopping in more than 75 congressional districts across the country before joining in Washington, D.C. on April 9.
The trek began after a group of activists abstained from food for 22 days on the National Mall, beginning in November, "to show that immigration reform is too important not to keep front and center in front of Congress," said Rudy Lopez, one of the activists who fasted publicly and continues his quest with the bus tour.
On Monday, the group will visit with Rep. Chris Stewart's office staff, to urge the congressman to take leadership on the issue of immigration.
José Bonilla, of Salt Lake City, became a legalized citizen of the United States in October, after 34 years of living in the country and paying taxes. He said the process was long, but it shouldn't be.
"I think every human being is coming here to work and to do good and live in society," he said. "In my opinion, everybody has the right to live, everybody has the right to work and everybody has the right to do good."
Bonilla, who teaches guitar and Spanish lessons with the Lutheran Social Services of Utah organization, said it was impossible for him to work or live in his native country of El Salvador, or other Central and South American countries, where he said government is "so oppressive."
"And if they're not oppressive, they are corrupt and that's a problem," Bonilla said. He wants the process of gaining citizenship to be more streamlined for everyone.
Wester said there has been no significant immigration reform in the U.S. since the 60s and it is "long overdue."
"We accept immigrant labor with 'help wanted' signs but then we put out 'no trespassing' signs when it comes to the immigrants' individual needs," he said. "We accept our taxes, but give them very little in return. This is not just. This is not American."
The group of Utah's religious leaders is putting the task of getting lawmakers on the same page up to God.
"We can't do this alone," Wester said. "We need God's help."
Lopez asked all Americans to join the fast, giving up all food or at least one meal every Wednesday throughout Lent, but also to pray and participate in their grass roots effort to help the more than 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who aspire to be Americans.
"We are here for the same reason that many of our ancestors came to this country," said North Korean national Dae Joong (DJ) Yoon, another of the fasting activists who came to Salt Lake City on Saturday. "We are working for America, we are caring for our children."
He said hearing stories of desperation from families waiting on the government for action only fuels the fire of their cause.
"This isn't about politics, this is about the children," Yoon said.
Yoon and Lopez have plans to take part in religious events in Salt Lake City on Sunday before meeting with Stewart's staff on Monday, then the bus tour heads to Pueblo, Colo., on its way to the nation's capital.
For more information, visit www.fast4families.org.