BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — American citizens have participated in the confusion over illegal immigration, Richard Land, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said during a conference on the issue at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
“For more than 20 years now, we have had two signs up at the border — one says ‘No Trespassing’ and the other says ‘Help Wanted,'” Land told 80 ministry leaders and concerned citizens attending sessions on Alabama’s new immigration law as well as ways Christians can respond to the overall issue from a biblical perspective.
Some 100 students also gathered nearby to discuss the same topics.
Both groups were part of the G92 Immigration Conference South, drawn from the 92 references to immigration or “the stranger” in the Old Testament. Stranger, or “ger” in Hebrew, is one who was accorded legal protections in Israelite society.
The conference included several speakers in each of the two tracks throughout the day and brought both groups together in an evening wrap-up session. Around 500 students heard about the issue in a convocation that day at Samford.
The Birmingham G92 conference was the second of its kind, following one at Cedarville University in Ohio last October.
Noel Castellanos, who writes about social justice issues and serves as CEO of the Christian Community Development Association in Chicago, helped with both conferences.
“Right after the new law was passed [in 2011 in Alabama], there was a lawsuit … but we were not hearing much from evangelical leaders,” Castellanos said. “We [evangelicals] are the ones who want to talk about being biblical and having a passion for folks, so that is one of the reasons for this conference, to bring as many evangelical leaders around the table as possible.
“There were not a lot of dissenting voices [at the Birmingham conference],” he said after the Feb. 23 sessions. “There were a lot of people on board but who had not met each other. It was good for them to see other folks who are strong Christians who care about this and to hear from … theologians, pastors and others.
“I think there will be a lot more that comes out of this,” Castellanos added.
April Robinson, minister to students focused on community and campus involvement at Samford, said the conference “created space for students to have some personal interaction with individuals who are deeply involved and impacted by immigration.”
Robinson said she hopes it also encouraged participants — students and adults — to some type of action.
“It created [an opportunity] to listen and learn … to continue thinking, praying, talking and researching and to realize as followers of Christ this is our problem. It’s not their problem,” Robinson said. “We want to assign it to someone else, but we have to take ownership of it as a community.
“We are called to pay attention to our brothers and sisters and help with whatever hardships and difficulties they are bearing … to try to lighten their load and be hospitable,” Robinson said.
Amanda Cherry, a Samford senior, said the conference provided an opportunity “to hear about the ones on the front lines and to hear perspectives that are different than mine.” She described immigration as “something I’m passionate about … and [I] want to engage with people working on the issues.”
Cherry said she realized at the conference that, while she has been “pro-immigrant,” she still needed to confess her sin in not always being outspoken on the issue.
Shawn Duncan, associate minister at Northlake Church of Christ in Tucker, Ga., traveled the two-plus hours to the conference because the immigration issue is a growing concern for him and his wife.
“We have a level of compassion and frustration not matched with knowledge about how to handle it,” Duncan said. “Our interest is first and foremost the Kingdom of God. How does that inform what we do?”
Osvaldo Padilla, assistant professor at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School who addressed the conference, said the answer to what the Bible says about immigration is extremely broad.
The Bible does not directly address the issue of modern-day immigration and government policy, Padilla said, and immigrants in Bible times were vastly different than today. Thus “we all need a bit of interpretational humility to draw principles from the Scriptures.”
Padilla pointed to Abraham, Joseph, Ruth and the nation of Israel as examples of immigrants in the Bible.
“In the Old Testament, people migrated for some of the same reasons they do today — famine and other natural disasters, war, to feed their families, etc.,” he said. “We shouldn’t view immigrants as necessarily ungodly people. An immigrant may be a very godly person. … But even if an immigrant is not a Christian, he or she is still made in God’s image.”
Other Scripture references for thinking about immigration, Padilla noted, are Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 5:15 and 10:18–19.
Alongside scriptural insights regarding immigration, it is important to understand the immigration process, Padilla said. A person also can learn about immigration by getting to know actual immigrants, he added. “See what God is doing in their lives and in the countries they represent.”
Padilla also suggested sponsoring an immigrant. “[Working through the immigration process] is not as simple as getting in line,” he said. “If you are poor you may never get in.”
For Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, getting in line to pay one’s back taxes should be the earned path of citizenship.
“We [as a nation] could be doing a better job of framing the immigration issue around … the highest good,” said Salguero, a Nazarene pastor from New York City. “That’s why I’ve been advocating [for 10-plus years] an earned path to citizenship … with family unification as the highest priority.
“It’s a crisis of family values,” Salguero said, noting the story of a Portugese woman who was separated from her children when she was deported.
Salguero asked pastors in the audience if the current laws are moral. “Are they the best laws or can we do better? And if so, how?”
Land, in his remarks, said current laws popping up in various states are not the best that can be done.
Immigration reform is needed on a national level, Land said, though expressing doubt that the federal government wants to make any changes.
“The federal government is making out like a bandit on this issue…. [It] is making a profit,” Land said. “There are millions of undocumented workers contributing to Social Security and they will never get a dime back.
“We need national immigration reform … but we have permitted our government to ignore its own laws for 25 years,” Land said. “No state can do this job. They don’t have the authority to do it. They don’t have the expertise to do it. It takes controlling the borders, and to control the borders, we must control the workforce.”
Land’s suggested path to citizenship for those in the country illegally includes getting registered; going through a background check; paying a fine; getting an ID card; and agreeing to learn to read, write and speak English. By coming forward and starting this process, the person would be put on probationary status and could work without fear of being exploited, he said. If the person continues to work and follows through with all the requirements, then he or she would earn permanent legal status.
If every American is provided with a new Social Security card that has his or her same number and thumb print, then employees would either have to have this new Social Security card or an immigration ID card, he noted. “We would say to employers that if you hire someone without the tamper-proof ID card or a Social Security card, then you are going to jail.
“As long as the workplace is open, there is no way to build a border high enough or deep enough to keep people from coming here,” Land said. “The workplace is the magnet. Once we secure the workplace, then we can secure 90 percent of those coming across the border. We can deal with the other 10 percent.”
Land also would like to see a guest worker program implemented in which citizens of other countries could come to the U.S. to work for designated periods of time and would be allowed to travel back and forth to their home countries.
“About 30 percent of undocumented workers here don’t want to stay here,” Land said. “They want to come here, work, make a lot of money, then go back to their home country. …
“We need these workers; economically we need them,” Land said. “And this is a situation where they can improve their lives by coming to this country and working.”
Michael Wesley Sr., pastor of Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Birmingham, said the African American community supports immigration reform.
“It is in our best interest to find a legal way to work out this labor force,” Wesley said. “There are solutions to this concern. It requires visionary, serious solution-oriented persons who take into consideration the plight of people. This can be done through visionary [ways], not exploitation.
“It requires courageous people who will take a stand and are willing to step forward and champion these causes,” Wesley said. “It also requires delayed gratification. We can’t have everything we want right now … [and] we must have the endurance to see this thing through. It is not going to be a quick fix.”
Other conference speakers included Matthew Soerens, U.S. church training specialist for World Relief; Jenny Yang, director of advocacy and policy for World Relief’s refugee and immigration program; Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing for Sojourners; David Smolin of Cumberland College of Law at Samford; Carlos Gomez, pastor of the Hispanic congregation at First Baptist Church in Center Point, Ala.; John Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church and first vice president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention; Ron Higey, pastor of Birmingham International Church; and Mayor Paul Bridges of Uvalda, Ga. Included on the closing panel were Paul House of Beeson Divinity School and Pablo Moscoso, pastor of Agape Church in Hoover, Ala.
Jennifer Davis Rash is executive editor of The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist State Convention; Julie Payne is a newswriter for The Alabama Baptist.