November 13, 2011
By Gustavo Valdes
When the Alabama legislature approved what is considered the nation's toughest anti-illegal immigration law, much of the state's religious community was quick to condemn it.
The Roman Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist churches went to court to block the law, calling it "the nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation." But Latino evangelical leaders say a key voice in Alabama's debate is missing - that of their own denominations.
"Because this is at some level a moral issue, and the religious community cannot stand idly by and allow a moral issue like this to go without a comment," said Carlos Campo, president of Virginia's Regent University, the college founded by evangelical icon Pat Robertson.
Religious leaders met in Birmingham last week to discuss the their role in the debate, with about 50 people gathering in a theater-turned-church.
"What is happening in Alabama is incredible," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the California-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "It is a repeat of the chapter lived by African-Americans, but now the African-Americans are Latinos and immigrants."
Campo and Rodriguez said that while consensus exists among evangelical leaders to speak out on immigration issues, the message is not reaching the pews.
"The pastors are failing, within the evangelical movement, in contextualizing the message to their members to call the elected officials at the local and federal level, and encourage an immigration reform that is not amnesty, but is not Alabama either. We have to find something in the middle that has a biblical balance," said Rodriguez, whose group represents churches with a membership of about 16 million.
According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey, more than 45% of Alabama residents identify themselves as evangelicals. But Campo said that group is not speaking with a unified voice.
"I think it is very hard as an evangelical, when I hear it is the Catholic and Methodist churches that came to the forefront and were the first ones to speak out and speak out strongly, but many in the evangelical community have resisted that," he said.
"Justice and mercy should go hand in hand, and I think we have to challenge the evangelical church to come to the forefront and be more unified that we've been," he added.
Alabama's HB 56, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law in June, allows police to question crime suspects about their immigration status and arrest those believed to be in the United States illegally. It requires someone renting a house or buying a car to verify their legal status, while anyone trying to connect to services such as public water or sewers must have state-issued identification.
The Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches' lawsuit asked a federal judge to block portions of the law that criminalized the transport and housing of illegal immigrants, provisions they argued would prevent them from providing services to illegal immigrants. Though the church lawsuit was dismissed, US. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn blocked those provisions in a separate lawsuit filed by the federal government and a coalition of civic groups that included the American Civil Liberties Union.
Campo said that, if Jesus was alive today, he'd be in Alabama dealing with the issue. But what would Jesus do?
Proponents and opponents of laws such as HB 56 each have the backing of the Bible, said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy at the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest U.S. evangelical denominations.
"Basically those two positions are two sides of the same coin," Duke said, adding, "What we are failing to see at this point is a concerted effort to bring those sides to a comprehensive approach to what we call a just approach to the illegal immigration problem."
Duke said the SBC does not support broad amnesty, favors securing the border and enforcing existing laws but recognizes the need for some type of solution to the problem. He points to the group's website, where he said there are resources for pastors to draw from and explain the issue to their congregations.
"I would certainly encourage church leadership to engage congregations in a process of discovery and education in the issue of illegal immigration and the development of a Christian response to the plight of the illegal immigrant, as well as the impact on the rest of the nation." he said.
But attendance was sparse at last week's event in Birmingham, where organizers did not allow reporters out of fear that some pastors would not attend if their presence was publicly known.
"I think you are looking at people in local situations trying to address problems in their own ways," Duke said. "I think it probably reflects the reality that they are in conversation with each other and feel it is appropriate for themselves to resolve problems without outside interference."
The one point of agreements among all is the perceived failure of the federal government to address the illegal immigration issue .
"The Democrats failed," said Rodriguez, who has met with President Barack Obama and his advisers to discuss immigration reform. "President Obama and the Democrats had control of the government for three years and failed to deliver on their promise to the Latino community. The Republican Party has failed in its rhetoric. Their rhetoric has been anti-immigration, anti- Latino, nativist. Both parties have failed."
And Duke predicted that continued inaction at the federal level will result in states debating more laws like HB 56.