Evangelical Leader Weighs In On Immigration Debate

Many religious leaders have voiced their opposition to the new Arizona immigration law, and have pledged to support those working for its repeal. Host Michel Martin speaks with Reverend Jim Wallis, president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, about his organization's efforts to fight the law.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about how faith and spirituality affect our lives. In a moment, we'll talk about that provocative essay by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr. He declared in a piece for The Huffington Post that the black church is dead, and he defended that argument on our program last week. Today, we'll hear a dissenting view. That's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about that tough new immigration law in Arizona. Opponents of the law are already fighting it in the courts, in the streets and now in the churches and synagogues. Faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds are denouncing the measure, joining protests and vowing to defy key provisions of the law.

One of those leaders is the Reverend Jim Wallis. He's the president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners. He's a well-known evangelical leader, and he's been speaking out against the law as he did in this recent interview on MSNBC.

Reverend JIM WALLIS (President, Sojourners; Author, "Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street"): We've seen Arizona, we don't want this to change our nation, make us a different kind of nation, different kind of people. We don't want to be that kind of nation. Let's fix this now before we do things we'll regret.

MARTIN: Reverend Wallis is with us now on the phone. Welcome, welcome back, I should say.

Rev. WALLIS: Hi, Michel, how are you?

MARTIN: I'm well, thank you for joining us. Now, you've called elements of this law a social and racial sin. What do you mean by that?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, Michel, faith does matter in this case, and I just heard Wade and Cynthia. I was in Phoenix last week. I spoke at a press conference and rally at the state House. And I started with the words of Jesus when he says: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. As you've done to the least of these who are my family, you have done to me.

And so I looked at the governor's tower where she was considering signing this bill, she has signed it now. And I said, governor, if you sign this bill, you'll force us as Christians to disobey the words of Jesus. We can't do that. If this law is passed, we will not comply. So, since then, sure enough, all kinds of clergy have been saying, clearly, we have to disobey the scriptures. This makes Christian compassion illegal because it's illegal to harbor - harbor, Michel, and transport undocumented people.

MARTIN: But it's already illegal to harbor illegal people.

Rev. WALLIS: Well, but this law, as you know, is requiring all law enforcement officials to really go and find undocumented people, to seek them out and to find them if there's a reasonable suspicion, as you've said. Well, who's going to be looked for, who's going to be targeted, who's going to be - who's going to be arrested? It says if you're even with undocumented people, you could be arrested.

Now, a lot of families out there are mixed, mixed legal and illegal. So it could be illegal to be with your family members. This has really gone beyond the boundaries here.

MARTIN: No, I understand your perspective from a civil rights law perspective, from the laws and tradition of the United States. But what I'm asking you from a faith perspective, how does this transcend existing, your sense of an existing barrier?

Because from a faith perspective there are some Christians who don't believe in national borders. I mean, they don't believe that national borders should be enforced because they believe that, you know, we are all one people. So by that standard, do you believe that any immigration law is inherently un-Christian?

Rev. WALLIS: No, but this immigration system is broken and has to be fixed. And this has been the neglect of Democrats and Republicans for a long time, and Washington hasn't acted. So the danger now is all these states will act individually. And this act goes far beyond - it transgresses moral boundaries and legal boundaries.

So, for example, I was out there and I met this woman who sure enough came here illegally as an infant on the back of her farm worker father 47 years ago. And now she's part of a Christian ministry that is serving undocumented people. Well, you know, no one has gone after her. Now people can go after her. Or a blond-haired blue-eyed white evangelical nurse practitioner serving in the clinic that this ministry runs, and she's serving only uninsured people, likely very highly undocumented population, so she could be arrested.

MARTIN: But what are you saying? Are you saying that immigration law is only religiously appropriate if it's never enforced? I guess I still want to press you on the question of what is it about this law that you feel transgresses a moral boundary?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, families are going to be broken up here. This enforcement without reform is cruel. Enforcement without compassion is impossible for us. Enforcement that breaks up families is something we will not do. Enforcement that requires us to disobey the Scriptures is something that - I was on a phone call yesterday with hundreds of Hispanic clergy and this is their Selma. And they're saying we're going to commit civil disobedience if this law forces us not to serve and be with vulnerable people...

MARTIN: But the existing law, forgive me, Reverend Wallis, the existing law does suggest, and it has been the case that persons who are out of status, even if they are related to persons who are within status can be deported. So, what is it about this law that you say specifically transcends a moral boundary? Is it the aggressiveness of the enforcement? Is it the law in the absence of some broader movement to address the broader issue? What is it exactly?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, because the system is broken, and therefore, in the context of a broken system, churches have been carrying on ministry to undocumented people for a long time and they will continue to do so, whether it's legal or not. But that's been going on for years.

This law steps up enforcement without fixing a broken system. So now you're going to have people coming after - when I was out there, the day before raids had occurred, people were afraid to stay home, they were afraid to go to work. So, where do they go? To church. And the church became a sanctuary in the middle of the week.

Now, the law says, this new law, and the enforcement aggression of this law literally could have law enforcement officials invading churches. So I'm saying, you're right, Michel, right now Christian ministry is being extended to vulnerable people and technically probably against the law. But the enforcement hasn't occurred as aggressively as Arizona wants it to.

And we're saying you cannot do enforcement without fixing a broken system. There are 11 million people here, and there are - they're our people. And what we're saying, the body of Christ is not, you know, we aren't Hispanic, African-American, Anglo, we are brothers and sisters. And what's happened now, there is more unity on this issue than any issue I've seen in the churches for a very long time. White evangelicals...

MARTIN: Okay.

Rev. WALLIS: ...African-American pastors, Hispanics, Asians are saying, you come after them, you're coming after us.

MARTIN: And, finally, Reverend Wallis, we only have about a minute left. You have been critical in the past for people who you feel have crossed the line from the faith work that is their mission to politics. In essence, you've criticized people for politicizing faith. And I want to ask you with great respect, how do you know that you have not crossed this line in the service of what you feel is more important to you?

Rev. WALLIS: Well, it's been in our tradition for a long time that we, as people of faith, will break laws that we feel are contrary to a higher law -render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's; unto God, that which is God's. And in this case, we want Republicans and Democrats to come together, put politics aside and fix a broken system for the sake of those whom Jesus tells us are the least of these and his own family.

MARTIN: Well, do keep us posted, if you would.

Rev. WALLIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: The Revered Jim Wallis is the president of the progressive Christian group Sojourners. He's also the author of "Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street," among other books. And he joined us by phone from his office in Washington. Reverend Wallis, thank you.

Rev. WALLIS: Thank you.

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