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Evangelical leaders urge immigration reform

WASHINGTON (BP)–Both political parties should come together soon to enact a strategy of comprehensive immigration reform that increasingly is being supported by evangelical Christians, leaders from that religious identity said at a June 9 forum on Capitol Hill.

Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land and other evangelicals called for Congress and President Obama to set aside partisanship and special interests to resolve the controversy and problems of illegal immigration.

The immigration crisis “is fanning the flames of hostility and animosity and distrust between various elements in our society, and it is time for our representatives in Congress and our president to put aside partisanship, to put aside narrow political interests and do what is best for the country,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“This just takes national will and insistence that our representatives and our senators and our president do what is in the best interest of the nation,” Land said.

Both parties have failed on the issue, said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

“Democrats are willing to save the auto industry, the housing market, health care and banks but somehow do not find time or the political will to save children from being separated from their parents, securing our borders and integrating 12 million into a legal status that would reconcile our communities,” Rodriguez said.

The Republican Party “stands at the brink of repeating history by completing a wall, not between Mexico and the United States but between Hispanic Americans and the conservative movement. How ironic,” he said. “The group that [President Ronald] Reagan believed would invigorate the Republican Party via its traditional values of God, family and country today potentially stands rejected by the party of Reagan. The family values party is alienating the most pro-life, pro-family constituency in America. Go figure.”

While there is disagreement from some, “there is significant agreement” among evangelical and faith-based leaders for comprehensive immigration reform that secures the country’s borders and integrates illegal immigrants by providing “a pathway for earned, legal status and/or citizenship for those seeking” it, said Mathew Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel.

Among white evangelicals, there was “a disconnect between the pulpit and the pew” the last time immigration reform was attempted in Congress in 2006-07, Rodriguez told reporters and others in attendance.

Because of the leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals and others, as well as the “just integration strategy” backed by Land and Staver, “I think we’re acquiring an incredible amount of support now from those in the pews,” Rodriguez said.

Talk show radio hosts who oppose comprehensive reform still influence evangelicals, “but I think that number is continuing to diminish in light of very prominent, very respectable leaders rising up in support of immigration reform,” Rodriguez said.

No one on the eight-member panel mentioned Arizona’s law that has put immigration reform in the spotlight since it was enacted in April. The measure requires police to check with the federal government on a person’s status if they suspect during a stop, detention or arrest he might be in the country illegally. Critics have charged the law legalizes racial profiling and have called for a variety of boycotts of the state, but Americans have expressed their support for the law in opinion surveys.

No legislation to reform immigration is moving in Congress. Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., is seeking support for a proposal he has yet to introduce, and Staver referred June 9 to a version in the House of Representatives.

After the mid-day forum, the evangelical leaders met in the afternoon with White House staff and congressional leaders. The group met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the Republican Conference; and Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president.

A “special interest issue” that needs to be set aside involves same-sex domestic partners, Staver said at the Capitol Hill forum.

Land, Staver and Rodriguez are among evangelical leaders who signed onto a June 4 statement opposing a provision in Schumer’s legislative draft that would treat homosexual partners the same as heterosexual married spouses. They would oppose his overall bill if it maintains that section, they said. The measure would enable same-sex partners from overseas to become legal citizens of this country in the same way heterosexual spouses of United States citizens are now able to gain citizenship, according to Liberty Counsel.

Land reiterated his call for reform that first secures the country’s borders.

A part of securing the borders “is a biometric, tamper-proof Social Security card,” Land said June 9. He is not recommending a national identity card, Land said. “[T]hat’s a smell too much like Big Brother. … If you had a biometric, tamper-proof Social Security card that every legal worker had to have, citizen or not, then if people managed to get across the border illegally, they wouldn’t be able to work,” because employers would face stiff penalties for hiring illegal immigrants.

After specific standards are met in securing the borders, “we move forward with a period of grace, where people can come forward and register and begin a pathway” to “earned, legal status” for guest workers and citizenship for those who desire it and qualify for it, Land said.

A reporter asked if the panelists would say those who are in the United States illegally had committed a crime.

“[M]ost of the people in my constituency would say, ‘Yes, they’ve broken the law, and there need to be penalties for that,” Land said. “The question is: What are the penalties? And we would argue that there needs to be an earned pathway to legal status that would include paying a fine, agreeing to come forward and register and undergo a background check, and to start taking English classes — I think every church in America ought to start English classes — and to take a civics class.”

Staver provided an answer to a question he raised of what to do with the 12 million or more illegal immigrants in this country.

“I think from our perspective you combine Leviticus 19, which is to be compassionate to the alien who is in your midst, with Romans 13, the rule of law,” Staver said. “If you just simply deport everybody, it’s not practical. Not only is it not practical, it’s not moral. And I don’t believe that’s biblical either.”

Pastors on the panel cited anecdotes of immigrants from various countries in their churches who have suffered because of the government’s flawed system and lawyers or employers who have failed to keep their commitments to those immigrants.

Jim Tolle, senior pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., said a failure to address the issue may produce a subculture in finances, politics, education and public safety.

“If we don’t do immigration reform, if we don’t have the staying power, the actual spiritual or relational or moral convictions, we will contribute to a massive multiplication of a subculture, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots will become the greatest in American history if we do nothing,” Tolle said.

In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution on immigration that urged increased border security, enforcement of the laws, and judicious and realistic dealings with illegal immigrants, while encouraging Christian outreach to immigrants regardless of their legal status.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.