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Land: Moral solution needed for immigration

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land called March 29 for Congress to approve comprehensive reform legislation that addresses the immigration problem in a “moral way.”

Land joined Hispanic evangelical Christian leaders and members of Congress in a Capitol Hill news conference calling for a law that secures America’s borders and outlines a firm process for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

The Senate and House of Representatives both passed bills in the last Congress to address the illegal immigration problem. The differences in the two measures were stark, leaving both dead and the question of how to deal with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States unresolved when the congressional session concluded

“[Congress needs], consistent with national sovereignty and with our security, to find a way to resolve this moral problem in a moral way consistent with the ideals of our nation,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This is a profoundly moral issue, and it goes to the core of who we are as Americans.”

During the news conference, Land read most of the SBC’s 2006 resolution on illegal immigration. That measure, approved by an overwhelming majority of the messengers, urged increased border security and enforcement of the laws, while encouraging Christian outreach to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

For a year, Land has promoted an approach that includes controlling the borders, enforcing immigration laws inside the country and no amnesty for law breakers. He also has said reform should consist of a “guest-worker” program that calls for illegal immigrants to undergo a criminal background check, pay a fine, agree to pay back taxes, learn English and apply for permanent residence behind legal immigrants after a probationary period of years.

He told reporters after the March 29 news conference he is “not supporting any particular legislation. The legislation that will pass is still out there waiting to be written.” He also told Baptist Press the bill that evangelicals will support has yet to be written.

Critics of comprehensive legislation have said the proposals amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Land rejected that label.

To call proposals that would require a person “to learn to read and write and speak English and … go through a series of processes to earn your way off sort of a probationary period to earn legal status and citizenship” amnesty is “to do violence to the English language,” Land said at the news conference.

Samuel Rodriguez, head of the country’s leading Hispanic evangelical Christian association, said at the news conference the network of churches and leaders does not support amnesty.

“We support an earned pathway to citizenship,” said Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “We support a pathway that will include demonstrations of proficiency in the English vernacular, civic classes, paying penalties and fines for breaking the law.”

Such a process could take “10, 12, 13, 14 years possibly,” he said.

Land also said at the news conference, “We don’t want to have the World Series where you have to have the national anthem sung in Spanish and English, the way it is in French and English in Canada. That’s why it’s important that people learn to read and write and speak English as part of the process of becoming part of the permanent fabric of this nation.”

He said Southern Baptist churches can make a major difference on the problem by initiating English classes. Last year’s SBC resolution encouraged churches to begin such classes “on a massive scale.”

Of the problem, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., said at the news conference, “In Boston at the present time, you have to wait three years to be able to get into a class to learn English. It’s 15 months in Phoenix, 14 months in Dallas.”

Land predicted a majority of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals will support reform that is truly comprehensive. “They will not embrace reform that is not [committed] to securing the borders,” Land told reporters after the news conference. “But if the government [shows] they are serious about securing the borders, they will embrace comprehensive reform.”

Kennedy, the leader on immigration reform in the Senate, has yet to introduce a version this year. He said at the news conference negotiations are still going on among Senate Democrats and Republicans, as well as the White House. “[W]e have every intention” of considering comprehensive reform on the Senate floor, “hopefully in the next short period,” he said.

Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D.-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., also spoke at the news conference, one week after they introduced the latest version of comprehensive immigration reform in the House.

Also speaking were Sens. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C.; Robert Menendez, D.-N.J., and Ken Salazar, D.-Colo., as well as Gilbert Velez, senior pastor of Mercy Church in Laredo, Texas.

The Senate approved in May a bill intended to secure the border with Mexico but also with provisions that would establish a guest-worker program and enable most illegal immigrants to enter a process to become citizens. Some House Republicans and other conservatives charged it would provide amnesty to those who are in this country illegally.

The House version, which was passed in December 2005, focused on border security and enforcement against illegal immigrants and those who aid them. Hispanic leaders and Senate Democrats sharply criticized it as lacking in compassion.

Last summer, the Senate appeared to move toward the House position to some extent. For instance, senators voted 94-3 to fund the construction of 370 miles of fencing and 461 miles of vehicle barriers on the United States-Mexico border.

The standoff on the issue, Rodriguez said at the news conference, has resulted in “polarizing [Hispanic] communities, separating families and provoking 12 million people to hide deeper in the shadows of our society, and jeopardizing our heritage as a nation of laws and a Judeo-Christian ethos. We need to protect our borders, and we need to stop illegal immigration. Yet there is also something that is not tangible that we must similarly protect: our values and our faith narrative.”