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  Home :: 2006 December :: GOVERNMENT POLICY Religion informs immigration debate

NOV. 14, 2005
UPDATED OCT. 12, 2006
UPDATED MAY 15, 2006

Religion informs immigration debate

The debate on immigration reform has split the country, so it's no surprise that the religious community is divided over the issue as well. In this case, the clergy are divided from their flock. Across the country, Roman Catholic clergy have been fighting efforts by Congress to make it a crime to help or hide illegal immigrants. With the Catholic Church's Catechism stating that "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin," priests and nuns believe it to be their divine duty to protect illegal immigrants.
• Priests in Chicago have held hunger strikes, and others have marched in protests across the nation, with Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick giving the opening speech at a demonstration on the National Mall in April.
• Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony has declared from the pulpit that priests in his diocese have permission to break the law if Congress makes it a crime to help illegal immigrants.
• On Good Friday, the bishops of New York State echoed the position of Catholic clergy when they declared that they wanted Congress to pass legislation that "provides for a pathway to permanent legal status for undocumented workers" and sets up "a rational and fair temporary worker program."
That stance by Catholic Church leaders contrasts with what many lay Catholics say about the issue. When asked whether they supported or opposed amnesty for undocumented workers who are already in the country, 34 percent of Catholics said they supported it, 49 percent opposed it and 15 percent were unsure, according to an April Zogby poll. (Read an April 18, 2006, Washington Times story about the poll.)

A similar, if more nuanced, division is taking place among conservative Christians. Some of the most influential Christian conservative organizations in the country have remained publicly silent about the issue, even though their members seem to be speaking loud and clear.
• The Family Research Council surveyed its members in April and found that by a 9-1 ratio, they believed illegal immigrants should be "detected, arrested and returned to their country of origin." Despite that, the council has not issued a public opinion on the matter. Read an April 28, 2006, San Francisco Chronicle story about it.
• Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, has endorsed a bipartisan plan in the Senate that includes a way for many illegal immigrants now living in the country to become permanent residents and eventually U.S. citizens. In an essay posted on the Baptist Press web site, Land wrote that U.S. citizens have an obligation to support the government and its laws, but he added, "As citizens of the Lord's heavenly Kingdom ... we also have a divine mandate to act redemptively and compassionately toward those who are in need."
• Christian evangelicals in favor of comprehensive immigration reform wrote a letter to President Bush and Congress. Among the signers was World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. But the NAE itself did not sign the letter because it said its members are divided on how to deal with immigration.

Why it matters

Latino immigration is transforming the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats say comprehensive immigration reform is needed soon. Increasingly, congregations and people of faith are taking a stand.

Questions for reporters

• What do employers, school officials, religious groups and social service agencies say about the impact of immigration from Mexico and Latin America on your region?
• How are congregations responding? What Spanish-language services or migrant outreach programs have been initiated?
• What stories do immigrants in your area have to tell about their journeys and their faith?

Jump to background

Click the map for interview sources
in your state and region

National sources

• Jeffrey S. Passel is senior research associate of the Pew Hispanic Center, which has conducted research on Latino immigration patterns and Hispanic attitudes toward immigration policy. Contact 202-419-3606,
• Marshall Fitz is director of advocacy with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which argues for "comprehensive reform that will make immigration safe, orderly, legal and controlled." It supports the McCain-Kennedy legislation, saying it "would go a long way" toward fixing problems with the current system. Contact 202-216-2437,
Ira Mehlman is media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform and is co-founder of the American Jewish Immigration Policy Institute. FAIR advocates for changes in immigration law that would reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter this country. Mehlman contends that Jews could face increased anti-Semitism if more immigrants are allowed into the U.S. Contact 310-821-4283,
Ernie Cortes Jr., the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, is on the executive team of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which engages in community organizing to encourage social change. He is widely known for developing leadership among Latino immigrant communities. Contact
Janet Murguia is president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. Contact her in the Washington, D.C., office, 202-785-1670. La Raza also has seven regional offices.
Edwin I. Hernández is director of the Center for Study of Latino Religion at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. The center conducts social-scientific study of the U.S. Latino church, its leadership and the interaction between religion and community. Contact 574-631-8558,
Ian F. Haney Lopez is professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. An expert on race relations and law, he is the author of Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (Belknap/Harvard, 2003). Contact 510-643-2669,
Gaston Espinosa, assistant professor of philosophy/religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, specializes in Latino religion and politics. Contact


Virgilio Elizondo is a visiting professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and founder of the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio. He is widely considered the "father of Hispanic theology" and frequently comments on the intersection of Latino culture and religion. Contact 574-631-4741,
• Kevin Appleby is director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which works with both grass-roots Catholic groups and the bishops to advocate for immigration reform. Contact 202-541-3065,
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz is professor of ethics and theology at Drew University in New Jersey. She is a leading voice in the area of mujerista theology, Latinas and justice issues. Contact 973-408-3269,
• The Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck is president of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif. He has commented on the importance of Hispanics to the Catholic Church in the United States. Contact 714-997-9587,
• William Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. He has said that if the Catholic Church wants to restore its credibility in the U.S., particularly among Latinos, it needs to speak out on issues such as immigration. Contact 212-371-3191,

• Amy Bliss is immigration legal services attorney for World Relief, the development arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. World Relief is involved with refugee resettlement and supports the Interfaith Statement in Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Contact 443-451-1992,
• The Rev. Richard Cizik is vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals. Although the group's humanitarian arm, World Relief, signed a letter asking President Bush and Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that allows immigrants more avenues to become citizens or permanent residents, the NAE itself did not sign the letter. Contact 202-789-1011,
• The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of Sacramento, Calif., is head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He has criticized conservative evangelicals who have spoken against or have remained silent on immigration. Contact 916-919-7476,
• Richard Land is president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Contact Kerry Bural, 615-782-8419,
• James C. Dobson is founder, former president and chairman of the board for the conservative group Focus on the Family. It has not taken a stance on immigration. Contact Christopher Norfleet, 719-548-4570,
• Jim Backlin is director of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition. He has said that respecting the nation's borders is a biblical principle. Contact Michele Ammons, 202-479-6900,

• Rick Ufford-Chase is moderator of the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a Presbyterian mission co-worker. He is a founder of BorderLinks, a not-for-profit, faith-based group that offers travel seminars - a firsthand "immersion experience" - for people wanting to understand U.S.-Mexico border issues. Contact 502-314-2266,
• C. Richard Parkins is director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. He says the Episcopal Church supports immigration reform which recognizes that many immigrants enter the United States because they need to support their families - and says a system that punishes them for doing so without acknowledging the U.S. relies on such workers is seriously flawed. Contact 800-334-7626 ext. 6252,
• Ralston Deffenbaugh is president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an organization that serves both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It helps resettle refugees, protect unaccompanied refugee children, advocate for the just treatment of asylum seekers and seek alternatives to detention for those incarcerated during immigration proceedings. He signed a statement on immigration legislation along with ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson and 80 other Lutheran bishops. Contact him in Baltimore at 410-230-2700.

• Gideon Aronoff is vice president for government relations and public policy of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which supports immigration reform because of Jewish religious and ethical principles. Aronoff has said that some of the same arguments used against Latino immigrants today - for example, that they're un-American - have historically been used against Jews. Contact 202-828-5115,

• Camilo Perez-Bustillo is migration and mobility goal director for Project Voice, the immigrant rights program of the American Friends Service Committee. Contact 215-241-7529,

• Dr. Aseem Shukla is a urologist and a member of the board of directors of the Hindu American Foundation, a human rights group that says it favors a more humane immigration policy. Contact 904-424-9442,

The Raise Your Voice Campaign is an initiative of Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 950 college and university presidents representing some 5 million students and dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement and service learning in higher education. The campaign has connected more than 300,000 students across the country on more than 450 campuses to support student civic engagement and address public issues. The campaign web site provides a history of student activism in the United States, as well as links to more information. Contact Allison Treppa, assistant director for student engagement, 517-492-2424.
Youth Activism is a project from the Social Science Research Council that seeks to foster discussion, debate and analysis on young people as civic and political players. Contact 212-377-2700.
The Campus Antiwar Network provides information on antiwar movements at colleges across the nation. National Coordinating Committee members are listed for regions across the country, along with contact information.
Matthew Lassiter is an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Read a Michigan Daily account of a lecture he gave recently on youth activism. Contact 734-647-4618,
Mark Boren is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He wrote Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject (Routledge, 2001). Contact 910-962-7545,
Paul Ortiz is an associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he teaches a course on the history of community and student activism. Contact 831-459-5583,
Pamela Perry is an assistant professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she specializes in youth activism and youth and social movements. Contact 831-459-5036,
Africana Online provides a history of black student protests during the civil rights era.
The University at Albany's Journal for MultiMedia History has an article on the documentary Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, which chronicles the Chicano movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.


• The U.S. Catholic Bishops sent a letter to President Bush on Oct. 11, 2006, asking him to veto the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
• Read the letter several evangelical groups and individuals wrote to President Bush and Congress urging them to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
• In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an immigration bill known as H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin. That legislation is now being considered by the U.S. Senate.
• In May 2005, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (enter S 1033 in the search field) was introduced in Congress - a bipartisan effort at comprehensive immigration reform that's being supported by many religious groups involved in immigration-related advocacy. The legislation would make provisions, among other things, for admitting temporary workers into the country, tightening security along U.S. borders, providing a path to citizenship for some undocumented workers and reuniting families. Read a May 13, 2005, Washington Post story. Its sponsors in the Senate are John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, and Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois.
• On July 20, 2005, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., introduced the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act (enter S 1438 in the search field). Its sponsors say it would strengthen border security and enforcement of immigration laws. It would require undocumented immigrants already in the United States to leave before they would be eligible to receive visas for temporary work.
• The National Immigration Forum posts a chart comparing the two bills and tracks the status of legislation.

On Dec. 30, 2005, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles sent President Bush a letter arguing that "our golden rule has always been to serve people in need - not to verify beforehand their immigration status." Read a March 1, 2006, story from the Los Angeles Times explaining Mahony's views, and a March 2, 2006, account of Mahoney's Ash Wednesday homily.
In May 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a campaign for immigration reform called "Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope," saying the U.S. immigration system is broken. The campaign is supported by 20 Catholic organizations with national networks. In January 2003, the bishops from the U.S. and Mexico issued a pastoral letter (also posted in Spanish) regarding migration.
On Oct. 14, 2005, a large coalition of faith-based and community groups issued an "Interfaith Statement in Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform." It calls for border protection policies "consistent with humanitarian values" and a chance for immigrants already in the United States to become legal residents. The statement's supporters include national Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups, along with local groups from Benedictine monks to Buddhists.
World Relief, the development arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, is involved with refugee resettlement and supports the Interfaith Statement on immigration reform.
On April 21, 2005, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commssion, was among those signing a letter urging defeat of the REAL ID Act of 2005, arguing that the legislation - which ultimately passed - would make it harder for asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution. Land told Christianity Today that immigration is the most difficult issue to predict where evangelicals will take a stand.
More than a dozen national Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith International and the Anti-Defamation League, along with many local groups, have endorsed a statement called "A Jewish Vision for the Future of American Immigration and Refugee Policy," issued in July 2005. It states that the United States shouldn't place limits on immigration "because of exaggerated fears that today's immigrants will not become productive and patriotic Americans."
In June 2005, the executive council of Episcopal Migration Ministries approved a resolution expressing concern about "serious flaws" in the U.S. immigration system and supporting legislation that would, among other things, reunite families and permit undocumented workers now in the country to pursue legal residency.
The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a statement on immigration in November 1998. It recalls the church's tradition of showing hospitality for the uprooted and vulnerable and calls for advocacy to produce just immigration laws.
African-American denominations have generally not been outspoken leaders in the debate on immigration reform. Read a Sept. 29, 2005, story by Newhouse News Service about the impact immigration reform has had on African-Americans. Read about involvement of African-Americans in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride from 2003, an effort to promote immigrant rights based on the 1961 Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement.

• A variety of polls on immigration can be found on the Polling Report's web site.
• Read an April 26, 2006, analysis, "Attitudes Toward Immigration: In the Pulpit and the Pew," from the Pew Research Center.
• Read the March 30, 2006, report, "America's Immigration Quandary," released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Hispanic Center, an extensive national survey on immigration issues, including surveys of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Chicago, Raleigh-Durham and Washington, D.C.
• A poll released March 28, 2006 by New America Media found that a majority of legal immigrants believed illegal immigrants were mostly taking jobs that other people didn't want to do. The telephone poll,
conducted by Bendixen & Associates in a variety of languages between Feb. 21 and March 21, 2006, found the legal immigrants considered anti-immigrant sentiment to be on the rise.
A CBS News poll released Oct. 24, 2005, found that three in four Americans say the United States isn't doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. Nearly half of conservatives disagree with President Bush's handling of immigration, as do 47 percent of white evangelicals.
• The Pew Hispanic Center released a survey on Aug. 16, 2005, showing that relatively few Hispanics favor increasing legal immigration - but that four of 10 adults in the Mexican population would migrate to the United States if they could. An earlier Pew Hispanic Center survey, from March 2, 2005, reported the results of interviews with nearly 5,000 migrants from Mexico. It found that most preferred to remain in the United States but would agree to participate in a temporary worker program.
• A 2000 poll by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life project found that 74 percent of Latinos want their churches or religious organizations to assist undocumented immigrants even when doing so is illegal, and 61 percent said immigrants who arrive illegally in the United States should be eligible for government assistance.

• Read an April 11, 2006, Religion News Service article on Beliefnet that looks at how religious leaders are joining immigrations protests.
• Read an April 5, 2006, Washington Post article on the split among evangelicals over immigration.
• Read an April 2, 2006, Washington Post article on Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony's fight for immigration rights.
• Read a March 30, 2006, Wall Street Journal article on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life web site on how the immigration issue is splitting evangelicals.
• Read a March 19, 2006, New York Times story about differences over immigration policy between evangelicals and Catholics.
• Read a March 14, 2006, Christian Science Monitor story about the involvement of religious leaders in the immigration debate and the willingness of some to consider civil disobedience.
• Read a March 2, 2006 article from Christianity Today explaining how Hispanic churches in Southern California work with undocumented immigrants.
• Listen to a March 5, 2006, NPR interview with Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which he describes immigration policy as a humanitarian and moral issue and said, "In the face of the stranger we see the face of Christ."
• Read a March 1, 2006, Chicago Tribune article on how Catholic priests are fighting for immigrants' rights. The article is posted on the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights web site.
• Read a January 2006 Christianity Today article looking at why some conservative evangelical groups are keeping quiet on the immigration issue.
• Read a Jan. 1, 2006, story from Religion News Service, posted on the Christianity Today website, about the reluctance of evangelicals to enter the immigration debate.
• Read an Oct. 1, 2005, National Journal story that describes how immigration has become a "red-hot" political issue that is creating pressure, particularly in the Republican Party, for immigration reform. The story is posted by the National Immigration Forum.
• Read a September 2005 story, posted by the Arizona Capitol Times, about legislation that states are passing or considering involving immigration.
• Read a Sept. 12, 2005, Washington Post story about illegal immigration becoming a growing concern for voters in Virginia and elsewhere around the country.
• Read a Sept. 7, 2005, Washington Post story about the cost of illegal immigration to border states.
• Read an Aug. 30, 2005, Associated Press story on the USA Today site about the governors of New Mexico and Arizona, both Democrats, declaring states of emergency because of crime and other problems illegal immigration is causing.
• On Aug. 29, 2005, a group of religious leaders traveled from Tucson to Nogales, Mexico, for an "Interfaith Border Witness" event calling for humanitarian immigration reform. The event was organized by David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee in New York, and Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Read an account from the Sept. 9, 2005, Arizona Jewish Post.
• Read an Aug. 12, 2005, Wall Street Journal story about faith groups, including Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, supporting immigration reform.
• Read an Aug. 10, 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about how immigration is creating a difference of views between some evangelical Hispanic pastors and conservative Republicans.
• Read a story posted by on Jan. 20, 2005, which says the politics of immigration threatens the unity of Christian conservatives.
• Read an article from the January-February 2005 Washington Monthly about the impact of illegal immigration in America's heartland.
• Read the transcript of a Nov. 14, 2003, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program on immigration.
• Read an August 10, 2004 Christian Century article posted on the religion-online site looking at the involvement of religious and humanitarian groups in trying to prevent deaths in the desert.
• Read a March 15, 2004, Business Week story about the "Hispanicizing of America."
National Public Radio's 2004 series on Immigration in America includes a segment on "Faith and Assimilation."


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia