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Religion, Morality, And Immigration Reform

March 13, 2011

The Morality Of Comprehensive Immigration Reform At A Public Crossroads

Being a San Bernardino immigration lawyer, I was recently asked by a local church to participate at a public forum on immigration issues.

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Are we as Christians,” asked the moderator, “called upon to love our less fortunate brothers and sisters?”

Are we as Christians called upon to love those sitting next to us, even if they are here as undocumented immigrants?”

I liked his direct approach.

Immigration reform is not just a political and social issue.  It’s about morality.

How can anyone claim to practice the teachings of Christ if they’re willing to callously demonize and criminalize innocent victims of poverty, political chaos, and other hardships?

Politician Versus Priest: Twisting Morality In The Public Arena

A few weeks ago, the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino held its Fifth Annual Migration Mass.  Inland Empire residents displayed their international heritage, wearing traditional clothing and praying in their native languages.

Bishop Rutilio del Riego, the keynote speaker, took the opportunity to talk about hardships suffered by many immigrants caused by a broken immigration system in the United States.

He stressed the U.S. Catholic Bishops have called for comprehensive immigration reform measures which expand avenues for immigrants to come to the country legally and provide a means for families divided by citizenship issues to be united more quickly.

Yet, according to the Riverside Press Enterprise, the 1.2 million Catholics living in Riverside and San Bernardino are divided on the issue of giving legal status to undocumented immigrants.

At some parishes, those who oppose immigration reform have threatened to withdraw financial support and even to completely abandon the church.

In the face of such opposition, some priests have declined to vocally support the church’s position.

Not surprisingly, the backlash is fueled by elected officials opposed to immigration reform.

Brian Bilbray, a Republican Congressman who classifies nearly every immigration reform proposal as amnesty, asserts the Bishops’ views are “dangerous.”

Under his view, talk of legalization entices more would-be immigrants to come into the United States illegally.

In an effort to turn the morality aspect of immigration reform on its head, he asserts, “People talking about this, including the bishop, are responsible for people dying on the freeway, drowning in the rivers, and dying in the desert.”

Immigration Reform Gains Steam As Religious Leaders Close Ranks

Church leaders reject such criticisms.

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Not just Catholics.

As the public debate over immigration has dragged on, more and more churches have declared support for immigration reform.

Different denominations are joining forces.

For instance, in Texas, one of the hotbeds for immigration opponents, religious leaders from various faiths recently took part in an interfaith meeting endorsing the need for comprehensive solutions.

Participants included:

  • Rev. John Ogletree, Pastor of First Metropolitan Church
  • Rev. Marcos Witt, Head of the Hispanic Ministry of Lakewood Church
  • Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention
  • Rev. Michael Rinehart, Biship of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Jewish Rabbi Mark Miller
  • Muslim Imam Mustafa Yigit
  • Catholic Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese

And, as discussed in A Guiding Light: Utah’s Five Principles For Immigration Reform, Mormons played a leading role in shaping the Utah Compact, a set of principles for immigration reform.

With church leaders expressing support for immigration reform, their congregations are increasingly moving in the same direction.

According to a recent study by the Public Relations Research Institute, “people of faith, by a two-to-one margin, support comprehensive immigration reform.”

Debunking The Myth Of A Dual Morality On Immigration Reform

Over the past few decades many elected officials, now opposing immigration reform, have relied on the support of religious groups for electoral backing.

The current immigration debate, however, poses a threat to such ties.

While several politicians continue to equate illegal entry into the U.S. as a criminal and, by implication, an immoral action, religious leaders dispute notions their position advocates lawbreaking.

“The Catholic Church is for the reformation of the immigration laws so that we do not have illegal immigration,” explains Gerald R. Barnes, a leader of the Catholic Church’s Justice For Immigrants Campaign.  “We are not encouraging people in any way to break the law. We want to change the law.”

As a green card and naturalization attorney, I face similar criticisms.

At the end of my forum presentation, news reporters asked me, “Doesn’t your position support breaking the law?”

“In law,” I explained, “there is a difference between legitimacy and legality.”

“There are times when rules are legal, under the prevailing law, yet they are wrong from the standpoint of a person’s deepest philosophical, religious, and spiritual beliefs.”

“In such instances, the choice is clear,” I added, “I have a civic duty to obey the law but I have a higher moral obligation to follow my conscience and work to change the law.”

Childhood Lessons On Moral Values

I was raised in a traditional Catholic household and attended parochial schools.

My morality, private and public, has been strongly shaped by religious teachings.

I was taught to feed the hungry, tend to the elderly and ill, care for the downtrodden, and help those less fortunate than myself.

At the forum, I asked the audience to put themselves in the shoes of immigrants.  “What is the greater moral wrong, from an immigrant’s standpoint?  To do nothing when their wife and children are starving?  Or to enter a country without permission to find work and send money home to feed them?”

I was taught – whatever our religious faith or country of origin – we are one human family.

We cannot use our borders as an excuse for failing to fix our broken immigration system and help needy, decent human beings seeking merely to survive here and abroad.

Morality taught me to love, not hate, people in desperate straits.

As Jose Gomez, a Catholic Archbishop, recently noted:

“Right now in this country, there are a lot of people – a lot of good people – who are saying things they know they should never be saying about immigrants.  Their anger and frustration is understandable.  But their rhetoric and many of their political responses are not worthy of the Gospel.  And they are not worthy of America’s proud history as a beacon of hope for the world’s poor and persecuted.”

The question remains, however, which road will the American public pick?

By , Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics

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