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US Faith Groups Increasingly Favor Immigration Reform

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The editor of the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reports a growing consensus among religious leaders that immigration reform is urgently needed.

But the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner also notes that religious groups disagree on what kind of reform is necessary, and she questions whether significant numbers of Americans are influenced by what religious leaders say.

Lindner’s essay in the 79th edition of The Yearbook is part two of a theme chapter that appeared in the 2010 Yearbook. The earlier essay explored the profound impact on religious communities of a new wave of immigration since 1965. The current editorial examines the role of American churches in advocating immigration reform, and tells how U.S. religious bodies are now engaged in ministry to immigrant communities.

Traditionally, evangelical churches in the U.S. tended to oppose a relaxation of immigration enforcement laws, and resisted amnesty proposals for undocumented aliens already living in the U.S.

More recently, evangelicals, like Protestant Catholic and Jewish groups, have begun to call for comprehensive immigration reform. Major religious bodies voicing support are the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention and Mormons.

Just how closely Americans are listening to their religious leaders’ voices is another matter, Lindner said.

Lindner cites a 2010 report from the Pew Research Center: “Few Say Religion Shapes Immigration, Environment Views,” drawn from Pew’s 2010 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey.”

Lindner writes: “According to the Pew study, only seven percent of Americans identify religious leaders as a source for their own thinking about immigration policy … When contrasted with the role of religious leadership in forming public opinion on other matters of public affairs even such early findings are a cause for sober reflection.”

But even as religious groups come closer to agreement on the need for immigration reform, other factors — including the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks — complicate the debate. Since 9/11, Americans tend to see immigration reform “in a wider context of national security.”

In addition, Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law, enacted in response to fears of drug trafficking and terrorism, attracted national attention.

“In such a climate of threat, resources to inform rational, calm, and morally defensible policy may be in short supply,” writes Lindner.

Too, the continuing economic downturn, which has seriously reduced revenues to religious institutions, has diminished immigrations policy to just another item on a larger list of issues of church concerns, including health care, education, housing and income support, Lindner says. “The leadership within religious bodies will be tested in balancing the theological demand to extend hospitality to the alien with attention to the self-preservation instincts of their members to assure safety and security within their homes.”

Ultimately, the type of mission and ministry religious bodies undertake effects the policy stance they take on immigration, Lindner writes.

“Those who work in educational programs are likely to wish to see strengthened education provisions in new immigration policy. Those who work with exploited immigrant workers are likely to provide strong support for the inclusion of worker safeguards in immigration legislation,” she writes.

Lindner offers four observations for future research and study:

  • Given the growing political, economic and environmental instability globally the next quarter century is likely to be characterized by increasing pressure leading to greater numbers of migrant peoples worldwide. Such wide-scale social upheaval is likely to create the need for continuous policy debate within and among the nations.
  • The effectiveness of religious advocacy for immigration reform and the nature of that advocacy will provide a practical means for assessing the role of religious communities in these debates and must be closely observed and analyzed as a measure of contemporary religious moral authority.
  • Ministries and mission with and for immigrant communities within the U.S. may well become a prominent expression of domestic mission for decades to come. As church-sponsored “settlement houses” proliferated at the close of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, so too will immigrant ministries shape domestic mission endeavors in the 21st century. The nature of these ministries and the measure of their effectiveness in achieving their respective aims will be important, and should be appropriately documented.
  • American religious bodies and their advocacy for immigration reform will be carefully scrutinized by both ecumenical and interfaith organizations throughout the world. In an era of instantaneous communication and heightened religious sensitivity the role of immigration reform activities and its consequences for deepening such relationships may provide new opportunities for collaboration.

Source: NCC News

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