2013 Congressional Becoming America Pilgrimage to New York and New Jersey

On Thursday, July 25th 2013, The Faith & Politics Institute led its first-ever Becoming America Pilgrimage to New York and New Jersey, a three day tour of some of the iconic landmarks of immigration where stories, song and prayer were shared. The pilgrimage provided an opportunity to take a step away from the politics of immigration reform as well as a break from the important policy debate surrounding the issue, to focus instead on historical and personal perspectives.  The congressional delegation was comprised of over one hundred people, including members of Congress and other leaders from the spheres of faith, academia, media and business who returned to Washington, DC with a renewed sense of our shared yet varied American immigrant story.

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The delegation traveled together from Union Station on a Norfolk Southern train comprised of renovated rail cars reminiscent of another era.  Honorary co-leaders Representative Joe Crowley (D-NY) and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), along with Faith & Politics President & CEO Liz McCloskey welcomed the guests on the train as the journey began.  Many members of the New Jersey and New York delegations served as honorary co-hosts of the trip. 

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The train arrived in New Jersey and the delegation boarded a ferry that landed at Ellis Island, where approximately 40% of Americans can claim an immigrant relative who first arrived there.

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Twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924.  Though damaged during the recent Hurricane Sandy, the delegation received a warm welcome from the National Park Service as park rangers spoke of the island’s history and gave the delegation a tour of Registry Hall.  Outside, overlooking Manhattan, faith leaders from Sikh, Catholic, Jewish and Evangelical Hispanic communities offered reflections and prayers on “welcoming the stranger” drawn from their own faith traditions.  The quiet end to a long day offered an opportunity to begin the journey on a reflective note.

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The second day of the pilgrimage, Friday July 26th, began in the early morning when New York City Mayor Bloomberg greeted the congressional delegation at the historical Gracie Mansion for breakfast.   The Mayor was introduced by a poised young woman whose parents brought her to the United States as a young child and who has not yet earned her citizenship.  She spoke of the challenges and the hopes she has as a “dreamer,” the cohort of young people that are the subject of the pending Dream Act (an acronym for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) which was first introduced in Congress in 2001.  At Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bloomberg, Rep. Crowley, Rep. Diaz-Balart and Faith & Politics President Liz McCloskey participated in a news conference to publicize the Becoming America pilgrimage. To view the conference click here:


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A highlight of the morning was the privilege of attending a naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society for 80 new American citizens from 47 different countries as they became citizens of one country.  Reps. Crowley and Diaz-Balart offered the keynote address, sharing their own families’ experiences coming to America.  The members of Congress in attendance stood on the stage to share in reciting Pledge of Allegiance with the new citizens; United States Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, an immigrant herself, led the recitation. 

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Throughout the day there were points of both celebration and reflection. After the naturalization ceremony, the delegation visited the African Burial Ground National Monument where the group remembered that not all Americans arrived by choice or with the promise of a better life, but that they too have had a significant part in the shaping and growth of America.  A storyteller recreated a slave lament, followed by Faith & Politics Program Coordinator Andrea Wise singing a song she composed for the occasion.

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At the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A living memorial to the Holocaust—the delegation was greeted by Robert Morgenthau, who served for over thirty years as the Manhattan District Attorney and is a trustee of the museum.   Also welcoming the delegation was Faith & Politics board member Joyce Brayboy of Goldman Sachs, a supporter of both the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in the neighborhood of the Goldman Sachs headquarters, and a generous supporter of The Faith & Politics Institute.  The lunch featured a panel discussion moderated by former CNN news anchor Richard Liu, now at MSNBC, in which Lui with great respect and sympathy elicited the immigrant stories of Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard, Dr. Ronald Depinho, President of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Sally Frishberg who escaped the Holocaust and arrived as a young girl in America.  The stories of how they and their families came to America from India, Portugal and Poland were unique to each individual, yet tied together by the common thread of seeking opportunity and freedom in the United States. 

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On Friday evening, the delegation had another quiet opportunity to reflect inside the beautiful St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue with a greeting and invocation by Rector Buddy Stallings, a story of growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by Sodexo executive Michael Montagno, and a guided reflection by facilitators Tiffany and Matthew Freeman, who will be facilitating ongoing discussions on Capitol Hill for the Congressional Leadership Institute on Race and Democracy, a joint project of The Faith & Politics Institute and Search for Common Ground (Read more HERE).

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The delegation moved next door to Inside Park at St. Bart’s for a reception and dinner, at which more immigrant stories were told.  United States Treasurer Rosie Rios introduced Senator Mazie Hirono who shared her story of leaving Japan as a young girl with her mother, who was fleeing an abusive husband.

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Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, former Secretary of Commerce and formerly CEO of Kellogg Corporation told of his family’s odyssey from Cuba to Florida to Mexico and back to the United States, as well as the long road to citizenship for various members of his family.  He spoke of our immigrant identity as the “secret sauce”to making America a success.  

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Tap City, a multiethnic tap dance troupe, provided a medley of dance and Dr. Richard Land, the new President of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and formerly of the Southern Baptist Convention offered a closing benediction.

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On Saturday morning, the delegation had breakfast high above the September 11 Memorial site at View of the World

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After learning about the memorial site, the delegation visited the memorial site, where the members of Congress lay a wreath at the Survivor Tree, the only tree to survive the wreckage which has grown new branches and sprouted new leaves.

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The memorial contains the names of those who perished at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania where passengers took the flight down to prevent more destruction.  Members of the delegation looked for the names of those they knew who had perished on September 11th and learned poignant stories from the guides at the memorial as well as took note of the many countries and nationalities the victims represented.

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From the 9/11 Memorial site, the group traveled to Rep. Crowley’s home town of Jackson Heights, Queens, arguably the most diverse neighborhood in America.  Arriving at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights as the Saturday Sabbath service was concluding. the delegation was greeted by Rabbi Simeon Kolko who explained how the shrinking Jewish congregation now shares it worship space with Christians of various ethnic backgrounds.  

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told his family’s story of becoming American and the special struggles that Jewish people had arriving in a country that often did not understand or welcome people of his faith and culture.  Leader Cantor spoke of the ways in which American Jews adapted to this country and availed themselves of the community resources that helped them in their transition.  Also speaking at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights were several community groups who assist current-day immigrants with the adjustment to America.  The program at the Jewish Center ended with lively song and prayer, and laughter. To view Eric Cantor’s photos from the pilgrimage click here:


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While the Becoming American Pilgrimage officially ended with more stories and lunch at an Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, a sizable portion of the delegation elected to stay an extra day to hear the unique story of Irish immigrants seeking an escape from the Great Hunger in the mid-19th century in Ireland.  Irish historian Turlough McConnell spoke at breakfast and led the group to the Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park City.  After the famine memorial, a small group led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Jim McGovern toured the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to hear the story of “Irish Outsiders.”  This final optional day has helped to fuel expanding interest in a Faith & Politics pilgrimage to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to learn of the “Troubles” there as well as the peace and reconciliation process underway and its parallels with American efforts to bridge the divides of race, party and religion. 

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While in Northern Ireland, we hope to cross the ‘Peace Bridge'” that connects the formerly divided communities of Catholics and Protestants in the city of (London) Derry. From left to right:  Michael Collins, Chief of Staff to Congressman John Lewis; Congressman John Lewis; Kristin Leary, co-Founder of the Frederick Douglass-Daniel O’Connell Project; Liz McCloskey, President & CEO of The Faith & Politics Institute, back row:  Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. Joe Crowley of New York.”

The Faith & Politics Institute hopes that this three day immigrant journey has touched the hearts of its participants and has contributed to a benevolent spirit in Congress that will inform the legislative challenges that await them when members  return in September.   The Institute is grateful for the time and openness that members of Congress and others are willing to give to experience our pilgrimages and other programs, as well as for the support of generous individuals, foundations and corporations that make our work possible.

Articles on New York Becoming America Pilgrimage 2013

The Hill “Lawmakers embark on bipartisan exploration of our shared history” by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY)


Voxxi “Lawmakers hit the road to push immigration reform forward” by Griselda Nevarez


Politico “House lawmakers plan immigration tour” by Seung Min Kim


General Board of Church & Society of The United Methodist Church


Eric Cantor Blog


Latin Times “Immigration Reform 2013: House and Senate Lawmakers on Tour of NYC Immigration Sites” by David Iaconangelo


NY1 “Members of Congress Make Pilgrimage to City’ Immigration Landmarks” by Zach Fink


El Nuevo Herald “Congresistas conocen a inmigrantes en NY” by Por Claudia Torrens


The Wall Street Journal “Bloomberg: US needs immigration reform now” –Associated Press


Queens Chronicle “House Majority leader Eric Cantor visits Jackson Heights; may call for immigration reform outside by Josey Barlett


Bretbart “Cantor: Jews Struggled like immigrants of today” by Kerry Pickey


QueensLatino “Politicos le ponenfe a inmigracion by Javier Castano


Times Ledger U.S. lawmakers visit Jackson Heights to research the immigrant experience” by Christina Santuccihttp://www.timesledger.com/stories/2013/31/immigrationconference_all_2013_08_02_q.html

Videos on New York Becoming America Pilgrimage 2013

YouTube New York 1 “Rep. Crowley Speaks to NY1 about Becoming America Pilgrimage visit to Jackson Heights


YouTube MayorBloomberg “Mayor Bloomberg Host Reception for the Faith & Politics Institute’s”


Photos of New York Becoming America Pilgrimage 2013

Eric Cantor’s photographs on flickr


Byron’s Photos on Faith & Politics’ Facebook


Tweets from New York Becoming America Pilgrimage 2013

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