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Faith groups press for balanced approach to immigration

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 2006

Will tougher enforcement along the Mexican border solve the country's immigration crisis? As the US Senate and state legislatures take up the hot political issue of immigration reform, religious voices are joining others in calling for a more comprehensive approach.

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While faith leaders support the need to enforce the law and protect national security, many say that a strict emphasis on enforcement not only fails to reflect American values and history, but has already backfired.

Only reform that includes safe, legal avenues for workers needed in US society, they add, can deal realistically with the economic and social forces at work.

"The immigration system is broken on every level - on security, humanitarian, family, and economic levels," says Rabbi David Elcott, interreligious director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

More than 40 religious groups - Christian, Jewish, and Muslim - have joined in a statement to Congress and the president, and many are gearing up to press the Senate this month for more balanced legislation. The US House passed a stringent anti-immigration bill in December that, among other things, made it a crime to assist an illegal immigrant. (There are an estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.)

Faith-based organizations, which provide health and social services to low-income people, say the bill could jeopardize their staffs. While lawmakers insist that isn't the case, others point to recent events in Arizona.

Daniel Strauss and Shanti Sellz, volunteers in a church-related humanitarian program, No More Deaths, are being prosecuted for transporting three illegal migrants they found ill in the Arizona desert. The young volunteers, who say they contacted a doctor about the men's symptoms and were advised to seek medical help, were arrested by the US Border Patrol en route. They face up to 15 years in prison under a law aimed at smugglers.

The Border Patrol maintains the men weren't seriously ill and only needed water.

"I think this is part of a larger shift in local border-patrol policy and the national political climate toward a get-tough approach," says Geoffrey Boyce, spokesman for No More Deaths in Tucson, Ariz. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are dying as a result." Last year alone, 282 perished trying to cross the Tucson border sector. "True security," Mr. Boyce continues, "can only be reached through compassion and recognizing the complexity of the situation." Respect for the law is essential, he and other religious leaders agree. But the laws must reflect these complexities.

"It's a natural reaction when you feel people are here outside the law, that they should be stopped or sent back," says Kevin Appleby, head of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But people need to understand greater forces are at play than a person deciding to cross a border - that in globalization, for example, labor is moving as much as capital."