Debate Over Immigration Heats Up in Church as Senate Prepares Bill

WASHINGTON – Christian groups are weighing-in on a divisive debate over immigration and border security as Congress prepares to tackle a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would crea
( [email protected] ) Mar 29, 2006 09:06 AM EST

WASHINGTON – Christian groups are weighing-in on a divisive debate over immigration and border security as Congress prepares to tackle a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would create a new guest worker program and give millions of illegal aliens an opportunity to become citizens.

Immigration reform has proved to be among the most divisive topics for the Republican majority, with some wanting to tackle only border security and enforcement issues and others believing a comprehensive immigration overhaul is needed in the long term.

Both President George W. Bush and the Senate Judiciary Committee have sided with the comprehensive approach that calls for leniency toward foreign temporary workers and some illegal aliens. However, in an unusual move on Wednesday, the Senate will be taking up a bill by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that does not include a guest worker program and toughens border control policy. The plan is to later replace Frist’s bill with the Judiciary Committee’s broad immigration overhaul.

The Capitol Hill brawl comes against the backdrop of huge protests across the country by largely Hispanic and religious crowds opposed to a tough border security and enforcement bill approved by the House of Representatives.

Religious leaders and immigration proponents marched in crowds of up to 500,000 in some of the largest rallies in recent history to protest the House bill, which they say would allow law enforcement officials to incriminate both illegal immigrants and the caretakers who help them.

During an interfaith rally at Capitol Hill on Monday, religious leaders – including more than 100 clergy – demanded that Congress drop the House bill and follow the scriptural commandment to “welcome the stranger in this land.”

"In exercising our faith, in our Lutheran tradition, when standing before civil authorities demanding true reform, true justice, we echo the words of another reformer, Dr. Martin Luther, when we say, 'Here we stand; we can do no other,'" said the Rev. Paul W. Stumme-Diers, a bishop at the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "Here we stand, as those familiar with the ones adversely impacted by this legislation because they inhabit our pews. Here we stand, as church workers deemed criminals under proposed legislation."

As immigration rights activists rallied Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted an amendment by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would let churches, charitable groups and individuals to assist undocumented immigrants without fear of prosecution.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate-approved Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act would allow religious workers to “provide humanitarian assistance including medical care, housing counseling, victim services and food, or to transport the alien to a location where such assistance can be rendered." The bill would also create a guest worker program and give illegal immigrants the chance to work toward legal status without first returning home.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank Griswold, supported the Senate action on immigration reform.

“I urge the Senate to adopt legislation which, while respecting legitimate security concerns, affirms us as a nation which follows a generous and fair immigration policy,” said the Episcopal head.

However, some politicians and keynote representatives of the conservative Christian voter-base that helped bring the second-term election victory for President Bush opposed the comprehensive approach, calling it unlawful and unfair.

"It is not necessary to provide that path to citizenship," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "Many people believe it is amnesty. I'm going to call it a different name. I'm going to call it unfair."

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commissions, meanwhile told President Bush that his constituency is “deeply offended at the very basic level when the government does not enforce the law.”

“And it’s clear that the government is not rigorously enforcing the law at the border or in the country when it comes to illegal immigration,” Land said to President Bush, according to Baptist Press. “As Southern Baptists, we believe that Romans 13 teaches the government is to punish those who break the law and reward those who obey the law.”

Land told Baptist Press that he also said to Bush, “Second, if it is felt that there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform and the laws need to be changed, then change the laws but rigorously enforce the law, whatever it is.

“Third,” he continued, “the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists want the government to secure the borders. That does not mean sealing the borders but having control over who goes in and who goes out and making sure that everyone is doing so legally.”

Bush has consistently supported a comprehensive reform approach that would allow guest worker programs as well as strengthened border control.

Frist’s bill does not have a guest-worker component and mimics the House bill that concentrates on border security and the enforcement against illegal immigrants. Any legislation passed by the Senate must be reconciled with the House bill.