Immigration policy divides churchgoers

6/2/2010

1:30 P.M. EST May 27, 2010

Near Nogales, Ariz., a person walks along a section of the border
wall constructed by the U.S. government along the border with Mexico. A
UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.
Near Nogales, Ariz., a person walks along a section of the border wall constructed by the U.S. government along the border with Mexico.
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.
View in Photo Gallery

Mention illegal immigration, and get ready for a debate at Green Valley Community Church in Arizona.

The United Methodist congregation, about 40 miles from the Mexican border, includes ranchers who want to stop illegal immigrants from trespassing and leaving trash on their property as well as volunteers who welcome the newcomers with food and jugs of water in the desert.

To bring these churchgoers together, the Rev. Rebecca Oakes Long, the senior pastor, held a discussion class on the issue in February. About 50 church members attended.

“The consensus was that our immigration system is broken and it is not working either for us or for Mexico,” Long said. “But what reform looks like is different depending on people’s point of view.”

Discussions like the one at the Green Valley church have been taking place from houses of worship to the halls of Congress since the passage of a controversial Arizona law last month giving police broad powers to detain suspected illegal immigrants.

The United Methodist Church in its Social Principles urges both the church and society “to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

But how to achieve “justice for all” is part of the conversation among United Methodists. What people on all sides agree is that the discussion is important — and possible.

At Green Valley, Long said, “We learned we could take both sides of this issue, talk about it for four weeks and not kill each other.”

Welcoming the stranger

Officially, The United Methodist Church has called for immigration reform and particularly legislation aimed at preserving family unity, providing just treatment of laborers and offering a “reasonable path towards citizenship.”

General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, also urges local congregations “to oppose unjust local and state ordinances that seek to deprive undocumented persons of basic social services including the access to adequate housing and protection under the law.”

United Methodist Bishops Mary Ann Swenson (left) and Beverly
Shamana check out one of 70 water stations that have been placed in the
desert for immigrants. A UMNS photo courtesy of Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
United Methodist Bishops Mary Ann Swenson (left) and Beverly Shamana check out one of 70 water stations that have been placed in the desert for immigrants.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
View in Photo Gallery

Yet the church is speaking to a nation where many believe the United States should have greater restrictions on immigration. Mainline Protestant church members tend to mirror the wider U.S. public in their opinions on immigration issues.

According to a Zogby poll released last December, 78 percent of mainline Protestants agreed with the statement: “Past efforts to enforce immigration laws have been grossly inadequate, and the government has never made a real effort to enforce the law.”

Backers of the Arizona law say it will help secure the state‘s borders and address particular concerns about human smuggling and the drug trade. However, opponents, including Phoenix Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño, say it will lead to harassment of Hispanics and other racial and ethnic groups. The Council of Bishops at its recent spring meeting offered support and prayer for Carcaño in her opposition to the law.

Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, suggested that congregations and other United Methodist groups include immigrants in their discussions on the issue.

“I think conversations should be entirely honest — people should be encouraged to share all that they feel,” he said. “But the focus of the conversation should be on deeper understanding of the issue and how people are directly affected.”

Climate of fear

The new Arizona law is having an effect on the state’s faith communities even though it will not go into effect until July 29.

A number of predominantly Hispanic congregations have already seen their attendance dip, said the Rev. Jim Perdue, a missionary for immigration and border issues with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and Desert Southwest Annual (regional) Conference.

He said church food banks also have seen a greater demand because many undocumented immigrants whose U.S.-born children qualify for food stamps are fearful of reapplying for the government aid.

“If an illegal immigrant comes to the church looking for help and we do what Jesus tells us to do, I worry we could get in trouble for that.”
--The Rev. Tweedy Sombrero

The new law will affect every church near the border, said the Rev. Tweedy Sombrero, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Yuma.

“I’m really afraid that we won’t be able to do ministry,” she said. “If an illegal immigrant comes to the church looking for help and we do what Jesus tells us to do, I worry we could get in trouble for that.”

She said her church members welcome whoever comes through the church doors. Still, she said most of her largely Anglo congregation supports the new law.

Max Pitzer, a member of Trinity and a retired customs official, said he doesn’t think the law will make much of a difference. Now when police stop a person they suspect of being illegal, he said they simply would not need to wait for the border patrol to detain the person.

Pitzer also does not think Hispanics will face racial profiling. In Yuma, Hispanics comprise the majority. “If they are going to (racially) profile, that’s going to be hard,” Pitzer said. “They’re going to be profiling the majority.”

Boycott ethics

There are no easy answers.

Arizona is dealing with illegal immigration in a way no other states are, Perdue said. In the 1990s, the U.S. government added fences, better lighting and more agents in Southern California and Texas. According to The Associated Press, Arizona has since become the biggest gateway for people coming illegally into the country from Mexico, and the state’s illegal immigration population has increased fivefold since 1990 to around 500,000.

Joyce Webber, a member of Green Valley Community Church, describes herself as “on the fence” about immigration issues. Nevertheless, she thinks the new law is too harsh.

“We have to find a way for the people who are already here to become citizens, but we do need to stop the flow,” she said. “I know why they are coming because this is a better country to live in.”

The Arizona law is bringing together religious leaders in the state who do not always share the same opinions on immigration, Carcaño said.

“There’s much more interfaith and ecumenical work happening than I’ve seen in the six years I’ve served here,” she reported, during a May 21 conference call on immigration issues.

“Any boycott of Arizona will only extend our recession for another three to five years.”
-- Bishop Minerva Carcaño

Carcaño said that people must follow their conscience, but she expressed some reservations about proposals by groups, both inside and outside the church, to boycott the state.

“Any boycott of Arizona will only extend our recession for another three to five years,” she said. That would have a negative impact on the poor and vulnerable, she added.

One thing is clear to church leaders: Immigrant families living in fear because of the new law need care from people of faith. “They’ve been pushed even deeper into the shadows of our communities,” Carcaño said.

Hope for future

The Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor, serves as the top executive of Church World Service, whose Immigration and Refugee Program works with churches to resettle about 8,000 refugees and immigrants in the United States each year.

He sees the current debate as an opportunity to bring attention to a broader problem.

“Immigration reform opens an opportunity for us to fix a system that is clearly broken,” he said, “and to do that which honors our humanity, unites families and does justice.”

Room for dialogue exists on specific policies.

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary and a founder of the Confessing Movement—an unofficial United Methodist group that works for renewal in the church—sees immigration as a human issue that Christians have a responsibility to address.

However, he worries about church leaders putting too much emphasis on more open U.S. borders.

Welcoming the stranger is not Jesus’ only command, Dunnam pointed out. With completely open borders, he fears the United States will not have enough resources to responsibly feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the sick as Jesus also calls Christians to do.

“These issues are complex,” Dunnam said. “There is no simple solution. But the solution does lie in a generous, hospitable immigration policy.”

*Hahn and Bloom are United Methodist News Service news writers.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.