A group of community and religious leaders in Iowa has collected hundreds of signatures supporting a project seeking to integrate Hispanic families in the region and lessen the marked anti-immigrant tone that prevails in the current political debate in that state.

The campaign, Helping Our Iowa Neighbors, was launched in April during a meeting in Orange City, a rural town of 6,000 residents near Sioux Falls, in a zone that is 7 percent Hispanic.

That initial group, which included public officials from cities in the area, at the time held consultations with residents there, both immigrants and non-immigrants, about the best way to promote a "suitable environment" for all families, focusing mainly on helping Hispanic families.

The group, now known as the "Sioux County 100," compiled the responses and concerns in a document entitled "Fixing Our Immigration System," in which they ask not only for immigration reform to be implemented quickly but also for that reform to be based on "Christian principles."

According to the information distributed by the activists on their Web site (www.ouriowaneighbors.org), more than 700 people in northwest Iowa have already signed the petition.

Immigration reform, the document says, must "protect families and children" (avoiding, for example, the separation of parents and children, "grow small town economies" (with temporary guest worker programs) and "practice smart law enforcement."

The last point is explained in the document as implementing "smart immigration law enforcement initiatives consistent with maintaining human dignity and respect that includes fostering positive relationships with all local residents while deterring and punishing criminal activity."

The document adds that current immigration laws are "dysfunctional," but - despite that - "incremental steps can be taken immediately to improve our current laws, in the absence of comprehensive reform."

Among those steps, the group says, are the possibility of allowing undocumented foreigners who already fulfill certain criteria (like having a job, paying taxes and not having a criminal record) to regularize their status, as well as facilitating the hiring of immigrant workers, especially for agricultural jobs.

In addition, the group asks for the tone of the immigration debate to be moderated among candidates for Congress.

The request was made after one of those candidates, Republican Steven King, recently used disparaging terms to refer to immigrants. EFE