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Religious Leaders on Immigration Reform

Authors: Mark Tooley, Director, Institute on Religion and Democracy Galen Carey, Director of Government Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals Arturo Chávez, President, Mexican American Catholic College Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop, Episcopal Church
Interviewer(s): Toni Johnson
July 21, 2010

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Arizona's law allowing local police to enforce federal immigration law has added new fuel to the debate over immigration reform, an issue that continues to be one of the most difficult national issues. The Obama administration's recent decision to challenge the state law has further raised the stakes. Four religious leaders who recently attended a faith and immigration conference at the Council on Foreign Relations weigh in with their views of reconciling religion and immigration law.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Mark Tooley argues religious leaders have been too quick to side with illegal immigrants, and that there are strong "faith-based arguments" for enforcing the law while still treating people compassionately.  But the National Association of Evangelicals' Galen Carey contends if "we reform our laws that will make it much easier for our laws to be enforced and respected." Arturo Chávez of the Mexican American Catholic College says programs that will allow people to come to the country legally "on some kind of temporary workers' program" will help put a stop to cartels' human trafficking, which he says is currently being treated as simply another illegal immigration issue.  Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says that treating people in a "less than fully humane way," such as jailing undocumented children, violates their basic human dignity and the insistence of most religions "to treat the image of God in the person before you."

Mark Tooley, Director, Institute on Religion and Democracy

My organization has critiqued a lot of religious groups for somewhat superficially endorsing immigration reform without examining the true after-effects. So far almost all official religious voices speaking out on immigration reform have been supportive and in general have advocated some kind of qualified or conditional amnesty for illegal immigrants. But we would point out that probably strong majorities of the constituencies that they claim to speak for would be in disagreement with them. We also think there are strong faith-based arguments for enforcement of the law and for taking national sovereignty seriously.

We think there are strong faith-based arguments for enforcement of the law and for taking national sovereignty seriously.

Reform should insist on equality and fairness before the law, and it would seem that many advocates of immigration reform want to grant some sort of conditional amnesty to illegal immigrants, a vast majority of whom would have come from Mexico or Central America to the U.S. for primarily economic reasons. But those same advocates seem to be largely silent, or come across as indifferent to, immigrants or potential immigrants from countries where you cannot cross the border, whether they're in Africa or in Asia, from far more impoverished situations. And maybe these people are suffering from political or religious persecution, or it's women who are suffering under cultures or regimes that ensure that women have a second-class status.

To give automatic preference for those from Latin America who can almost walk into the country and ignore the plight of those who have to stand in line legally for many years before  they can come, even though they come from greater poverty and greater persecution, seems like an injustice.

Galen Carey, Director of Government Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals

Our nation's been built by immigrants and we have immigrants in our country today who are contributing, helping to build our society, some of whom are not being treated well and they need to be protected and defended. Religious communities, because we have immigrants in our membership and in our communities, we can help to put the human face on the immigration policy debate. We're not just talking about issues. We're talking about people who contribute a great deal, people with families and children, people who are part of the future of this country. We need to recognize their rights, and their needs, and their contributions, and faith communities are a good place to do that.

We're not just talking about issues. We're talking about people who contribute a great deal, people with families and children, people who are part of the future of this country.

Laws are important, they need to be respected, and our society will be better off if our laws can be respected. But we have some laws that are unworkable. Our immigration law is one of those. The whole system is broken--people talk about getting in a line, but there really is not a workable moving line for people to get into. If we reform our laws, that will make it much easier for our laws to be enforced and respected.

We start by saying that in our faith community we believe that all people are made in the image of God and they have ultimate dignity. From a national interest point of view, it makes no sense to have people left out of our health systems or education systems. We need people in our society who are well-educated, who are healthy, and who can contribute. We want to get to a place where all people living within our borders are able to pay taxes, and to benefit from what our society has to offer.

Arturo Chávez, President, Mexican American Catholic College

Immigration is one of the most critical issues of our time, especially in the United States, but it's also a global phenomenon as people who are primarily looking for a better life seek it in other countries. The religious community can play a vital role in defending human rights. When products and capital have more freedom to move in this hemisphere than workers, there's something very systemically wrong with that picture. It violates our Catholic social teaching, when things and money have more rights than people.

When products and capital have more freedom to move in this hemisphere than workers, then there's something very systemically wrong with that picture.

What happened in Arizona was a culmination of many local governments enacting backward and mean-spirited legislation that directly affects people's civil rights. Whether they're legally here or not, the truth of the matter is that in these communities, those distinctions are often not made.  It also takes our focus away from some of the more important issues, such as safety, that concern people, like in places like Arizona, because [law enforcement is] going to be tied up trying to verify who is a citizen and who is not, versus who are the dangerous criminals.

The rule of law is something that's essential to a society and most mainline denominations are not advocating illegal immigration. If people truly had a way to be here legally, they would. But it is impossible for so many people in desperate situations. What I would say to those people who have that primary focus of the rule of law is that good immigration policy will make our society safer. We will have a better understanding of who is crossing the border. And good immigration policy--the ability for people to come legally for a time on some kind of temporary workers' program--will also help us get a better handle on these criminal cartels [that smuggle people across the border for forced labor]. So much of what we call immigration is human trafficking (PBS).

Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop, Episcopal Church

Immigration reform has to do with the way in which people [that] are undocumented or out of status have to live in this country. Many of them have come here in search of employment or for reasons of family reunification. Some have come as students and overstayed their visas, but in order to seek a whole life--a life that is one of abundance in the biblical sense--they need to be full members of the community. Religious communities represented here think that that's an important issue.

When we treat people in less than fully humane ways...we violate their basic dignity as a human being.

We have a broken system that encourages people to come here to work or to study--and then to stay [by creating legal, social, and economic ties]--without adequate opportunity to do so in a legal way. We have a system that says that children who are born here are citizens, but if their one-year older sibling came with migrating parents who didn't have status, that child is undocumented and can't get documents in any easy way. We need to regularize all of those things and do it in a way that supports the legal realities of this country and challenge the legal realities of this country when they're unjust.

How we treat individual human beings is a matter of human dignity. For religious communities, at least in the Abrahamic tradition, it's how you treat the image of God in the person in front of you. When we treat people in less than fully humane ways, in terms of immigration detention; when we put children in jail for months and months and months, we violate their basic dignity as a human being. Once we've done it in one segment of our legal system, it's easy to translate that into other segments of our legal system: the way we've treated prisoners in Guantanamo, the way we've treated prisoners--apparent prisoners of war--in other parts of the world is not unrelated.

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