.- Jamila Spencer, a Denver resident and champion of human rights for immigrants, received the 2006 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award yesterday. The national award honors young Catholics for leadership in fighting poverty and injustice.
Spencer’s position as the Associate for Public Policy for the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Colorado’s Catholic bishops, placed her in the forefront of the local immigration debate.
Spencer, 26, coordinated the Colorado bishops’ local initiative on immigration reform, which was largely modeled after the national initiative Justice for Immigrants: The Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform.
“Jamila’s Catholic faith, coupled with her own family’s difficult history of immigration, inspired her commitment to social justice,” wrote Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in his nomination of Spencer.
“Jamila has been able to influence both the language and dynamic of this important issue…she has guided community leaders to look to the social teachings of the Catholic Church as a vital resource for understanding the many challenges facing our world today,” he added.
Spencer is the first U.S.-born citizen in her family. Her mother emigrated from Baghdad, Iraq 30 years ago and ultimately helped her family navigate a nine-year backlog of visa-processing to join her. Spencer’s immigration reform work has been inspired by her family’s determination to assimilate into American society, while respecting and practicing its own cultural traditions.
“I am passionate about insuring that there is a way for undocumented people to become lawful residents and citizens,” she said. “There are 12 million-plus people living in the shadows. As Catholics, we have a responsibility to help them feel welcome and find their place.”
“The immigration debate in the United States has been one of the most vicious debates in our country. To enter into sincere dialogue is very difficult as there are a lot of people who are very angry and frustrated. But, there is a lot of hope,” she said in accepting the award last night.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented each year by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. It pays tribute to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996), former archbishop of Chicago and a leading voice on behalf of the poor.