Looking to Biblical Texts
The G92 in the conference title refers to the number of times the Old Testament scriptures make reference to how we should treat the alien in our midst (ger, the Hebrew word for alien, or stranger, is used 92 times in scripture). Indeed, there was no indication that the Bible calls for anything other than welcome, respect and mercy, in ones dealings with alien sojourners.
The conference had two concurrent tracks, a Student Track and a Pastor Track. The opening session was a combined gathering at Reid Chapel for a student convocation led by Matthew Sorens and Jenny Yang. Sorens and Yang have co-authored a book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate, which outlines a biblical basis for how immigrants should be treated. Their presentation demonstrated that in biblical times as in our own day, 1) immigration was often necessitated by famine and hardship, and 2) immigrants were of benefit to their host country. Calls for hospitality toward the stranger in our midst are a recurrent them in scripture. The presenters made the point that helpful immigration reform would make illegal immigration more difficult while making legal immigration easier. The point being that immigrants come to this country because they have a need to provide for their families, and we need the labor those immigrants can provide.
The Constitution and Society
The next session I attended was led by Constitutional law expert, David Smolin, of Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. He began by pointing out that there have been test cases across the country in which laws were written to push the legal envelope regarding immigration. Alabama’s anti-immigration law pushes the envelope farther than other state laws have done so far. It was designed to make life unlivable for undocumented immigrants. Smolin mentioned two constitutional problems with the Alabama law: the matter of whose job it is to enforce the law, and the problem of interfering with how local law enforcement prioritizes its duties.
Immigration is a federal policy. It is the Federal government’s job to enforce immigration law – immigration is not within the state or local government’s authority. Furthermore, the Alabama law interferes with local law enforcement by making the processing of undocumented immigrants take priority over all other aspects of law enforcement.
Smolin added that the worst provisions of the Alabama law have not been put into effect. One provision of the law enlists private citizens to notify authorities of undocumented aliens. Courts, however, have already determined that you cannot prevent an undocumented person from attending school. Moreover, written law prohibits profiling. Another provision yet to be implemented is the Harbor provision. The law as written goes far beyond the notion of hiding someone out from the authorities. As currently written, the law makes all citizens responsible for determining immigrants’ status.
While some parts are not in effect, and others have not been enforced yet, Smolin pointed out that the Alabama anti-immigration law is designed to instill fear.
Before beginning his presentation, David Smolin, to get a feel for his audience, asked how many of us were not sure whether Alabama’s anti-immigration law is good or bad. A few people raised their hands. When asked how many thought it was a terrible piece of legislation, most in the room raised their hands. When asked how many thought it was a good law, no one raised a hand. In counterpoint to the audience’s sense of the legislation, toward the end of his presentation, Smolin said that now is the time to contact our state representatives, because they are still under the impression that most citizens support of the new law.
A Panel Discussion
In the afternoon there was a panel discussion moderated by Noel Castellanos, CEO of Christian Community Development Association. The panel was made up of local pastors. Included on the panel were Dr. John Killian, of Maytown Baptist Church (and Vice President of the Alabama Baptist Convention); Dr. Michael Wesley, of the Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Carlos Gomez of First Baptist Church in Center Point, and Rev Ron Higey, of Birmingham International Church.
The opening statements from each pastor set the stage for discussion. Dr. Wesley, who pastors an African American church, stated that as an African American, he understood the disparity and disenfranchisement felt by the immigrant community. Dr. Killian said he did not think the county could economically sustain the current level of immigration and that the current law does not affect ministry to people. Rev. Higey asked the question, how can Christians defend an oppressive law? Rev. Gomez stated that many have left our state out of fear because of the way the Alabama law criminalizes people. Those same people are able to live in Mississippi or Florida, so they leave Alabama.
Moderator Noel Castellanos pointed out that in Alabama, the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Methodist Bishops have come together to speak out against Alabama’s Immigration Law. He added that sometimes the sense is that Evangelicals are not out weighing in on the issue and asked what pastors can do. Killian stated simply that we just needed to reassure people that churches will not arrest people and there is no reason to fear since all the Alabama law does is to reinforce the federal law. Higey countered that immigrants do indeed have reason to fear when they cannot even pick their children up from school for fear of getting pulled over by the police.
Wesley stated that what is needed on the part of Christian leaders is vision, courage, discipline and endurance. He emphasized that discipline and endurance are needed because we must make difficult choices and changes now so that things can be better in the future, and that that is the only way for things to get better. He framed it as “scheduling the pain first so you can enjoy the benefits later.” He stated that the African American community supports immigration reform, adding that “there is no chance that we [African Americans] will go back to those hard labor jobs. It is in the country’s best interest to allow immigrant labor.”
I posed a question to the panel by framing Alabama’s immigration law as a continuation of the old attitude that was seen in the Jim Crow laws, and that since evangelical churches did virtually nothing to reverse Jim Crow, did we have any hope that churches today will be any different? Dr. Killian’s response was first to admit how terrible Alabama’s segregation laws were and how we have, thankfully, moved past that awful period. He then begged to differ that the anti-immigration law was anything like the Jim Crow laws since “those were laws that oppressed our own people, and the current law has to do with illegal aliens.”
One person in the audience named Antonio identified himself as a pastor who grew up in Nicaragua under the Samoza regime and lived during the conflict between the Contras and the Sandinistas. He had made his way to the U.S. where he has now lived for several years. His comment was simple and profound: “Mercy and opportunity is something that everyone should have at least once in his life.”
[Later in the evening I had opportunity to talk with Antonio in between sessions. He told me that he is a minister to the Hispanic community at Victory Baptist Church in Jemison, Alabama. I asked him about the fear element among Hispanics, and he confirmed that there has been a great deal of fear in the wake of Alabama’s new law. He added that living here as an Hispanic is now much like it was living under Samoza or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. “I see people who get stopped by the police, and they end up having to pay a $3,000 or a $5,000 dollar fine. If they pay it then they are okay. That is a lot of money for someone who is a laborer. It reminds me of in Nicaragua, everyone knew that if you pay money to the police, they will leave you alone. Whenever you give too much power to the police, then you have trouble.”]
Throughout the discussion, Dr. Killian was the only one who reinforced the stereotype of a white conservative out-of-touch Christian. I am assuming that since he is a Baptist he calls himself a Bible-believing Christian. Apparently he did not bother to take note of biblical injunctions on hospitality to the alien in our midst. In fact, he never quoted scripture to back his claims, nor did he even refer to scripture. The only thing he quoted was state and federal budgets and budget deficits as reasons why we should proceed not only with the status quo, but also that our harsh immigration law is just what we need. I am glad he was there to give that extra dynamic to the discussion, and to highlight that there are those in our state who continue to think that everything is just fine (for white citizens). He was very instructive in demonstrating the wrong side of the debate, in my opinion.
A Word from Georgia
After dinner, Paul Bridges, Mayor of Uvalda Georgia, told the group about his experience in Georgia with that states anti-immigration law. Mayor Bridges was a delightful man who related to us how important agriculture is to his rural town. He emphasized how important immigrant labor is to them. The Vidalia onion is a major multi-million dollar product grown in his area, as are numerous other vegetable crops. There is a very short window of opportunity in which to harvest the crops to get them to the market. Bridges shared with us how efficient and skilled the immigrant workers are in their harvesting, how hard-working they are, and how family-oriented they are.
When he and other farming colleagues saw Georgia’s new immigration law, they were appalled by the implications and what it would do to the farm industry. He identified himself as a Republican, but was very displeased by what “some hot-shot Republicans in the State House” had done in passing the law. His closing words were, “I went back and read the Bible – I just read the red-letter parts of what Jesus said. I have read Georgia’s law and let me tell you there is nothing Christ-like about it. I have also read Alabama’s law, and there is nothing Christ-like about it, either!”
A Southern Baptist Resolution
A Southern Baptist Resolution
During the closing session, Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, led the “Public Forum on Immigration and Evangelicals.” He presented a resolution that was passed by the Southern Baptist Convention which met in Arizona in 2011 (you’ll remember that Arizona was among the first to pass anti-immigration legislation). The resolution cites numerous references from scripture which advocate hospitality toward the alien and other passages which denounce exploitation of workers and mistreatment of the poor. It also recognizes the rule of law and the increasing diversity of the U.S. along with the acknowledgement that many come to this country desiring a better future for themselves. The resolution does not support any kind of amnesty, but decries any form of bigotry, harassment, mistreatment, or exploitation as inconsistent with the message of Christ. There is also a call for the government to do more to secure borders and to hold businesses accountable for hiring practices “as they relate to immigration status.” (You can read the entire resolution here)
Dr. Land, in his concluding remarks suggested that one way for our government to deal with the immigration problem would be to implement something akin to the Marshall Plan for Mexico. By assisting Mexico to creating a better life for its citizens, fewer people will be forced to cross the border in search of jobs and income.
[Side note: I had never met Richard Land until this conference, but knew of him. I had always had a negative, visceral reaction in mind and body whenever I saw him as a guest on some cable news talk show. The reason for that reaction is that Dr. Land came into his position after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I left that denomination in 1983, and Dr. Land always brought to mind those days of conflict with the far right. Listening to his presentation, however, at least on the subject of immigration, I was able to find points of agreement. Afterwards, I went up to Dr. Land, shook his hand and told him I liked him a lot better in person than on those news/talk shows.]
Dispelling a few myths
Among the discussions throughout the day, there was an attempt to clarify some misunderstandings regarding undocumented immigrants. One is the notion that they are a drain on the economy. In fact, undocumented immigrants do pay taxes which support local schools and other services. Every time they pay rent or buy groceries, they are paying taxes. One participant noted that immigrants pay more taxes than necessary because they want to avoid any possibility of being audited or noticed by the government. Richard Land pointed out that economically, we need immigrant labor and we need immigrant taxes. He added that the government “makes out like a bandit” by collecting Social Security taxes from immigrants who will not collect social security benefits, and that the same is true with state taxes.
The take away points for me from the G92 Immigration Conference were:
- We are more dependent upon immigrant labor than most of us realize.
- We are in dire need of immigration reform which will make it easier for immigrants to work legally in our country.
- We must do some self-inventory and correction regarding our mistreatment, exploitation, and bigotry toward immigrants.
- It was beneficial for me to meet with people more conservative than I am to realize that there are indeed areas of common ground.
- Most beneficial was my personal interaction with Antonio, who has lived the struggle to come to our country in order to find a better life. I was fortunate to be able to get his perspective on things and to hear his words, “Mercy and opportunity is something everyone should have at least once in his life.”