Monday, November 28, 2005

The Mormon church arranged for a Utah senator to write a law to shield churches from prosecution for knowingly allowing illegal aliens to be ministers or do volunteer missionary work for them.

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, released a statement saying the church asked Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, to sponsor the provision, which she called a “narrow exception to the immigration act.”

“The law permits churches to use the volunteer services of their undocumented members by insulating the churches from criminal sanctions for doing so,” she said.

She said she would not answer any further questions, including why the church needs access to illegal alien volunteers.

But now the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it wants to revisit the provision and Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, has introduced a bill to repeal the exception.

“It removes an important legal tool for law enforcement and at the same time allows groups that would do us harm to legally conceal and transport people whom they know are in the United States illegally,” Mr. Tancredo said in a letter asking Mr. Bennett to undo the measure.

His office has identified several examples of mosques and Muslim-related charities that have had illegal aliens as their leaders, including a mosque in California with two leaders who had stayed past the expiration of their visas. The men were both being investigated for potential ties to terrorism, but were deported on immigration charges.

Mr. Bennett is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee, and he added the section, which applies to any religious denomination or its affiliates, to the final agriculture spending bill. That bill passed both houses overwhelmingly and was signed into law Nov. 10.

Mary Jane Collipriest, Mr. Bennett’s spokeswoman, said Mr. Tancredo is misinterpreting the law because it doesn’t affect illegal aliens’ status and does not shield them from being caught and deported. Volunteers can get room, board and other living expenses, but not a regular income.

She said the law “clarifies that a religious organization will not be in violation of federal immigration law should an undocumented alien, who is already in the United States, perform only volunteer ministry or missionary work for that religious organization.”

She said Mr. Bennett has since spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and he didn’t object to Mr. Bennett’s goal but may ask for changes — something Mr. Bennett is open to.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that Mr. Bennett’s office consulted with DHS before including the bill.

In a statement, Russ Knocke, a spokesman for DHS, said it is now aware of the law, but he refused to say whether Mr. Bennett cleared the provision with the department beforehand.

Mr. Knocke did say the department is now taking a look to see what should be done.

“The administration is working closely with Senator Bennett to see if revisions to the language might be necessary to better meet the provision’s intent and eliminate any doubt about security vulnerabilities,” he said. He would not answer further questions.

Will Adams, a spokesman for Mr. Tancredo, said DHS officials they spoke with denied they were ever consulted by Mr. Bennett’s office and that at least some in DHS raised objections to it.

“Bottom line — the amendment they supposedly signed off on is inadequate, and they’re working to overturn it in some form,” Mr. Adams said.

He also said before the new law, churches already were shielded if they didn’t know the person was illegal, so the only reason to have the amendment is to knowingly recruit illegal aliens.

“If you don’t have a pattern of practice in which you actively recruit illegal alien volunteers, then you’re in the clear before Bennett’s amendment,” Mr. Adams said.

For now, Mr. Tancredo is pushing ahead with his bill to repeal the provision, and Mr. Adams said it has “some heavy hitters” behind it, including the chairman of the immigration subcommittee, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee and the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference.

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