Friday, October 16, 2009

“Jesus was a refugee,” said Leith Anderson, director of the National Association of Evangelicals, who, along with other evangelical leaders, advocated a pro-immigration stance at an Oct. 8 Capitol Hill press conference. They issued a resolution formulated from a faith-based perspective.

Mr. Anderson also presented the organization’s support of comprehensive immigration reform later that day at a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship.

U.S. immigration policies are antiquated, laden with red tape and in need of a human rights approach to reform, the evangelicals said.

Their amnesty approach drew detractors.

“By the grace of God, each American benefits from membership in one of the most just, merciful and righteous bodies politic that has ever existed,” said James R. Edwards Jr., a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. “But just because the United States stands in the world as a beacon of liberty and justice doesn’t mean anybody who wants to come live in this nation can do so by their own will. Yet some 12 million or so people whose civic membership belongs to some other nation have forced themselves upon this nation.”

The evangelical group has taken positions contrary to some other Christian right views in recent years. For example, in 2007 it renounced torture and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees.” Other evangelical leaders have either resisted that view or remained silent on the issue.

The four-page resolution issued Thursday rests on biblical foundations and cites instances in the Old and New testaments in which refugees fled their lands because of hunger and war. The resolution describes God’s special grace shown to those individuals.

It goes on to cover many corners of the immigration issue, from advocating that borders be safeguarded with respect for human dignity to encouraging fair-labor and civil laws for legal immigrants.

The language of the document does not focus on pity for immigrants, but rather on equality in human rights, calling them “brothers and sisters.”

The recent evangelical involvement marks the growing interfaith voice in the immigration debate, which the Center for American Progress has called “a sweeping grass-roots movement.”

Organizations such as Catholic Social Services, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Interfaith Immigration Coalition have moved to the forefront of immigrant rights, rallying other denominations to join the effort.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition organized 167 prayer vigils in 133 cities in February to protect immigrants and raise awareness for comprehensive reform.

The editors of the Christian magazine Sojourners have created a six-week devotional guide, “Strangers in the Land,” for personal meditation on the connections between immigration and religion.

The National Association of Evangelicals represents 40 denominations and millions of evangelicals nationwide. Supporters said its traditional position on policies that support family values is an important motivator for recent involvement. Many of the pastors at the Capitol Hill meeting spoke of personal encounters with immigrants’ stories in their local churches.

Mr. Anderson, president of the association, is also the pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., which donates 10 percent of its ministry fund to immigrant support services.

He described a woman he knows who came as a legal refugee from Africa with her son.

“When her son turns 18, he will no longer have legal status and will have to go back to Africa, where he does not know the language or have a job,” Mr. Anderson said. “She is overwhelmed by the quagmire of regulations. This is obviously not right.”

“Our churches and communities have been blessed by immigrants, many of whom bring strong faith, entrepreneurial energy and traditional family values that strengthen our future,” said Galen Carey, NAE director of government affairs. “At the same time, some of our communities have struggled to cope with the impact of unregulated immigration.”

The resolution recommends that immigration reform respect several fundamental principles:

• Immigrants should be treated with respect and mercy.

• National borders must be safeguarded with efficiency and respect for human dignity.

• Immigration laws should recognize the central importance of the family and provide for reduction in backlogs for family reunification.

• There should be a clear and workable system for legally admitting an adequate number of immigrants to meet both work-force and family-reunification needs.

• There must be a sound, equitable process for currently undocumented immigrants who wish to assume the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship to earn legal status.

• There should be fair labor and civil laws for all who reside in the United States, reflecting the best of our nation’s heritage.

• Immigration enforcement must recognize due process of law, the sanctity of the human person and the incomparable value of family.

“Legal immigrants have trouble bringing over their extended family,” Mr. Anderson told The Washington Times. “If it takes 10 years, their children can be grown up by the time they get here. I think an important piece of our reform is to expedite the documentation process to reunite families.”

As support for immigration accelerates within the evangelical movement, it may be slowed down by Congress. President Obama said at a summit in August that immigration reform must wait until 2010 as legislators focus on the health care debate.

Berton Wagonner, national director of Vineyard USA, said churches must continue to serve immigrants in the meantime.

“We must become prophetic moral voices,” Mr. Wagonner said. “We are advocates for the maginalized, and it is time to engage in acts of kindness to immigrants.”

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