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Land, others call for Congress to enact immigration reform before adjournment

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land urged Congress Sept. 26 to pass before it adjourns comprehensive immigration reform that meets the dual requirements of security and compassion.

“I’m calling for this Congress to rise above partisan considerations and partisan disagreements,” Land said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “This is a political issue with profound moral and ethical implications. We do need to have security on our borders, but we also have to find a way to deal compassionately and fairly with the 12 to 14 million people who are here illegally.”

The appeal by Land, other religious leaders and senators from both parties came in Congress’ final days of business before the Nov. 7 election. The Senate and House of Representatives plan to recess Sept. 29 or 30, but both are expected to return for November sessions after the election.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, the lead Democratic sponsor from Massachusetts, told reporters there was “still time for us to enact a tough but fair immigration law.”

It appeared unlikely, however, any such measure would gain passage before November, if at all. The two houses have been at an impasse on the issue for months.

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

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

If anything, the Senate appears to have moved toward the House position recently. In early August, senators voted 94-3 to fund the construction of 370 miles of fencing and 461 miles of vehicle barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate leadership was pushing a vote on a House-approved measure to strengthen border security even as the recess neared.

Though he has not endorsed a specific bill, Land said at the news conference legislation that deals only with security and enforcement is not enough to repair a “broken system.”

Americans “have to find a way to deal compassionately with this in a comprehensive way, not in a piecemeal way, not fixing half the problems, but taking a comprehensive approach and finding our way to a moral and a decent solution,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“We have to reform our laws,” he said. “We have a government and a country that is committed to the rule of law, and when we have people ignoring the law -– employers, as well as those who come here illegally –- and the laws are not being enforced, it breeds disrespect for the law. And that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Congress must find a way to “get [illegal immigrants] protection, to get them identified and, for those who want to stay here, give them a pathway to earn their way to some probationary status of some sort where they can earn their way to legal residence,” Land told reporters.

Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., a leading supporter of the Senate measure, said his allies and he acknowledge “border security and national security is our top priority, but we also strongly assert that it has to be a comprehensive approach.”

Land has said that kind of approach should include controlling the borders, enforcing immigration laws inside the country and no amnesty for lawbreakers. It also 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 and learn to speak English, and apply for permanent residence behind legal immigrants after a probationary period of years.

The House-approved bill would potentially threaten the ministry of Christians to illegal immigrants, Land reiterated Sept. 26.

It leaves open the possibility that private individuals could be prosecuted for “giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name to someone who is here illegally, providing a warm bed to someone who is here illegally,” Land said. “I believe that it leaves open that possibility. That language and that idea must be stricken from any comprehensive immigration bill. The language that is in the House bill currently reminds me of nothing quite so much as the reprehensible fugitive slave laws of the 1850s, which punished private citizens for assisting those who were trying to find their way to freedom. It is absolutely unconscionable that that legislation still contains that language, and it must be stricken.”

When a reporter later asked Kennedy to comment on the House legislation, he said, “I think Dr. Land stated it quite clearly…. There is very little I could add to that excellent summation, other than ‘Amen.’”

Messengers to this year’s Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution urging increased border security and enforcement of the laws, while encouraging Christian outreach to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

In addition to Land, other religious leaders who spoke at the news conference were Derrick Harkins, pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington; David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Jamie Soto, a Roman Catholic bishop in Orange County, Calif.