Faith groups press for balanced approach to immigration

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.

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."

The bigger economic picture was outlined at a Senate hearing in October.

"At the heart of NAFTA lies a contradiction," said Princeton University Prof. Douglas Massey. "As we move to promote the freer cross-border movement of goods, services, capital, and commodities, we simultaneously seek to prevent the movement of labor ... to integrate all factor markets except one.... To maintain the illusion that we can somehow integrate while remaining separate, we have militarized our border."

At the same time, border crackdowns haven't kept people from coming who are desperate for work, Rabbi Elcott says. But they have made crossing more dangerous and kept illegal migrants from returning home.

Studies show that the seasonal flow of migrants to and from the US has been disrupted, turning migrants into a permanent US population.

According to Professor Massey, trying to stop the flow has reduced the apprehension rate at the border, raised the migrant death rate, lowered rates of return migration, "and transformed what had been a circular flow affecting three states into a settled population of families scattered throughout the 50 states, all at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars."

What is needed, religious and business groups say, are ways to regularize the status of undocumented workers (perhaps including a civil penalty); a legal temporary-worker system; and border policies that are humane but also effective at stopping terrorists and criminals.

President Bush has proposed a guest-worker program. He renewed his call for such a plan in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Political pressures from the right have so far hindered action. Religious groups tend to support a reform bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

The strong commitment to immigration reform draws on both faith teachings and historical experiences. For America's Roman Catholics, the stakes are particularly high. "We are an immigrant church, reflective of the nation," Mr. Appleby says. "We need to respond to the needs of our people, within the confines of the law."

The US bishops launched their own immigration reform campaign last May to educate Catholics and others and to advocate laws that promote legal status for migrant families.

The American Jewish community, sensitive to its own immigrant experience, has issued a "Jewish vision for the future of American immigration and refugee policy." Identifying core values such as protecting the stranger, their statement highlights the effects of past US curtailment of immigration, including at the time of the Holocaust.

Many see xenophobia playing a role in immigration proposals, alongside serious concerns about terrorism and drug smuggling.

Yet religious groups insist that national security is not inconsistent with fair immigration policies. They say providing the right legal mechanisms will make it easier to focus on those who pose a real threat.

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