Politicians must tackle immigration reform, religious leaders urge during DNC
CHARLOTTE — Christians, especially political leaders of both parties, have a moral duty to address the plight of undocumented immigrants in America – as part of the Gospel message to bring justice to the poor, welcome the marginalized, and stand up for the powerless.
That was the main point made during a Sept. 4 screening of "Gospel Without Borders," an award-winning documentary that tells the story of illegal immigrants in states including Arkansas and North Carolina, shown last week in Charlotte, N.C., to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. It depicts how Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians address immigration from a faith-based perspective, without delving into the partisan divide on the issue. It was produced by EthicsDaily.com, a division of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn., and funded by a grant from the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas.
More than 90 Democratic delegates, religious leaders and others attended the event at St. Peter Catholic Church, that included a screening of the film and a discussion by religious leaders featured in the documentary or who advocate for immigration reform, including Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor.
Bishop Taylor, who has worked more than 25 years in Hispanic ministry and wrote a 2008 pastoral letter on the human rights of immigrants, is featured in the film.
The non-partisan event at St. Peter Church was about "a moral witness of faith leaders to political leaders about the urgency of addressing immigration reform. Nothing more. Nothing less," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and co-producer of the documentary, in a recent editorial.
"We want this to be a moral challenge to the Obama Administration and to Democratic officials," Parham said, to address the estimated 10 million undocumented people living in the U.S. and to fix a broken federal immigration system.
Two other religious leaders joined Bishop Taylor on the panel, and they emphasized the need for all Christians to engage on this issue: the Rev. Minerva Carcaño, bishop of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, and the Rev. Julian Gordy, bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Rev. Clifford Jones, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, and the Rev. George Battle Jr., bishop for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in western North Carolina, also attended. Also appearing was one of the undocumented people featured in the film: Hector Villanueva, a bi-vocational Baptist pastor associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
"We say we're one nation under God, but we don't act that way," Bishop Taylor said during the discussion following the screening.
Holding up a very thick volume of "Caring for Migrants: A Collection of Church Documents on the Pastoral Care of Migrants," a compendium of Church teaching on immigration over the past 60 years, Bishop Taylor began his remarks, saying, "The fullest expression Catholic teaching on immigration and national borders and the human rights of immigrants is rooted the dignity and transcendence of the human person as revealed in Scripture."
The truth is, every person – whether they are here legally or not – has the inalienable right to be treated with dignity, he said. All people have a right to life, and to adequate food, shelter and clothing, access to medical care, the chance to earn a fair wage, and the ability to care for their children.
Countries might organize some rights under the law to protect the common good, Bishop Taylor acknowledged, and borders can be helpful ways to define governmental authority and regulate the flow of people and goods.
But laws and borders should not create "second-class" residents, nor prevent people from reasonably seeking residence, nor justify inhumane treatment, he said. Those would be immoral laws, which must be opposed, because they run counter to God's law.
The Church does not condone breaking the law, he added, but it is also a sin to obey an unjust law.
The panelists dispelled three myths commonly associated with undocumented immigrants: They are flagrant law-breakers, they are a drain on social services, and they do not pay taxes.
In fact, most immigrants came here because they literally had no other way to provide for their families. Poverty, crime, corruption and famine drive people to make the dangerous trek across the Southwest's desert border. Federal quotas on immigrants from particular countries are woefully inadequate to meet economic demands, and the legal process to obtain a visa or citizenship takes a person more than a decade to complete on average, they said.
Rather than draining our social services, immigrants contribute more into the economy than they take out, panelists also noted. Studies have calculated the income, sales, Social Security and payroll taxes undocumented workers pay totals more than they expend in medical care or welfare. In fact, because undocumented workers often use fake Social Security numbers, they end up paying into the retirement system, Medicare and unemployment insurance fund with no chance to ever receive those benefits.
Immigrants have fueled our economy for generations, noted Gordy — whether indentured servants from England, slaves from Africa, or the waves of Chinese, Irish, Italian, German and Japanese over our country's history. Each succeeding wave was greeted with suspicion and racism, yet each played an integral part in building our nation.
The Statue of Liberty, once a proud symbol of our immigrant identity, "seems a bit quaint nowadays and sadly ironic," Gordy said. "Ellis Island has been replaced by a steel fence."
And recent state laws designed to respond to the problem in the wake of the federal government's paralysis, he said, end up looking like "Jim Crow with a Spanish accent."
Political cowardice is to blame for neither political party adequately addressing comprehensive immigration reform — fear of demagogues who whip up anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the aisle, panelists said, and reluctance to engage with the truth no matter how unpopular that might be.
"I tell people, they didn't crucify Jesus for nothing," Bishop Taylor said.
Fear shouldn't stop people of goodwill from continuing to advocate for what is right and just: a humane immigration system that upholds family unity, provides a path for undocumented workers to earn legal status, protects all workers' rights, provides due process in detentions, and lays out a responsible process for the flow of workers in our economy, panelists said.
The recent executive order by President Barack Obama, granting a two-year temporary reprieve to young people who crossed the border illegally as children, is not enough, they agreed. There's been no substantial immigration reform in Congress since 1996.
"I believe that we are at a very perilous moment in the history of this country when it comes to the immigration situation," Carcaño said. "I do not think that things will be all right for any of us – whether we are immigrants or native-born — unless ... people of faith and all people committed to justice continue to work together in compassionate and merciful ways, but also in politically acute ways."
As Christians we have a sacred duty to care for our immigrant brothers and sisters, Carcaño said, but "the immigration crisis in this country will not be dealt with effectively by simple charity. We are in need of comprehensive immigration reform."
Now "is the critical moment," she said, "because our souls are dependent on it."
Underscored Gordy, "We have to speak up. We have to make some noise and ask our friends to make some noise.
"It looks pretty darn hopeless sometimes, but we Christian people believe there is always hope."
To view a clip from "Gospel Without Borders," order copies of the DVD, and download a free discussion guide about the film, go to www.gospelwithoutborders.net.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor