Conservative Southern Baptists Wade Into Immigration Debate

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, plans to address a gathering of Hispanic Baptists this weekend. Land willl tell the group that his denomination supports a path to U.S. Citizenship for illegal immigrants, a message that may test member loyalty within the conservative denomination. Richard Land says his message may not be popular, but needs to be said.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And it's time now for our weekly Faith Matters conversation where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, a conversation with a national faith leader whose stance on immigration is putting him at odds with other conservative leaders, the Reverend Richard Land is with the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. He is president of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

On Sunday, he's scheduled to address a group of Hispanic Southern Baptists. And he's going to go on the record in support of a path to U.S. citizenship for those who are in this country without authorization. We called him to get a preview of his speech, and he's with us now from Dallas. Welcome, Reverend Land. Thanks for joining us.

RICHARD LAND: Well, I'm glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So, tell me about being a conservative for immigration reform. What leads you to your perspective on this?

LAND: Hopefully my faith. I've been taking this stand for a long time. And I would remind you that George W. Bush made this one of his campaign platforms in 2000. He, of course, got sidetracked like everything else by 9/11, but he campaigned on a platform of comprehensive immigration reform. Our government has not been doing its job for at least the last 24 years under both Democrat and Republican presidents when it comes to immigration law in terms of securing the border or in terms of enforcing these laws.

And as a result, the federal government bears some culpability. When you don't enforce the law for 24 years, you can't then all of a sudden say, okay, now we're going to enforce the law and the fact that we haven't been enforcing it for the last 24 years is irrelevant. We've got 12 to 17 million people who are here illegally who have, you know, I think it's important to note, they broke the law in order to come here and work. Whereas our homegrown criminals tend to break the law so they don't have to work.

The vast majority of these people are law abiding citizens once they've gotten here. They've worked hard. It's not realistic that we're going to round them up and send them home. So, I...

MARTIN: Well, some people say that it is realistic. But realism aside, from your faith perspective...

LAND: Well, I don't think it's - I...

MARTIN: Well, I...

LAND: I don't think it's realistic, or I don't think it's the way you treat people either. I think that we need to have a pathway, an earned pathway to legal status or citizenship, whichever they prefer. One of the things you find out when you begin to study this issue is that about 30 percent of the people that are here illegally don't want to become citizens. They want to have a guest worker status, where they can make money here and then go home to their nation of origin. Only about 70 percent actually want to earn a pathway to citizenship.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me, though, more about how your faith informs your perspective on this, because as you know, from a political perspective, a number of conservatives disagree profoundly with you. They think that securing the border should be the first priority of any national government, being one. And they think that people can self-deport, they do. And that they can certainly be deported. That practicality is not a barrier to enforcing the law.

LAND: Right.

MARTIN: Even in an aggressive fashion. So I'd like to ask more about from a faith perspective how your faith informs your point of view on this.

LAND: Well, first of all, the Bible does tell us in Romans Chapter 13 that the government is ordained by God, that we are to abide by the law and that the central government is to punish those who do wrong and to reward those that which is right. And so as a citizen, I have an obligation to obey the law and to support the government in enforcing the law.

And it's one of the things that most disturbs me about the government's immigration policy for the last 24 years. They haven't enforced their own laws. And that breeds disrespect for law. But I'm also a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. As a follower of Jesus, I also have an obligation to love my neighbor as myself, to give a cup of cold water to the stranger, to seek to house the homeless and there are biblical admonitions about helping those who are in distress, like the story of the Good Samaritan.

And so when I combine those two together, I say we can have a policy, first of all, where we tell the government, enforce the law, secure the border. The border can be secured. I don't think anyone doubts that the United States government has the power and the resources to enforce the laws it chooses to enforce. The Internal Revenue Service comes to mind. You don't pay your taxes, they will come and get you.

Secondly, they need to deal with those that are here. And as I said, we bear some culpability. You know, we've had two signs up at the border for the last 24 years. No trespassing and help wanted. And these people have come here and they've gotten jobs and they're being exploited by unscrupulous people who exploit them because they know that they can't appeal to the law.

And we need to find a way to help these people come forward and to earn a pathway to legal status if they choose to do so. For instance, a lot of them have American citizens as children who were born here. Some of these people have been here 20, 25 years.

MARTIN: Yeah, and some people want to change that.

LAND: Yeah. Well, I personally don't think they should do that, but that's a separate issue. The point is, we've got historical facts, 12 to 17 million historical facts that are here. And I don't think that there is the will on the part of the American people to round up and deport 17 million people. And I think it would be wrong to do so.

I think that we need to find a compassionate and just way to allow them to pay a penalty for having broken the law, but then give them a probationary period where they can move toward a path to permanent legal status. And I would say that part of that is they go to the back of the line, so that they don't get an advantage for having come here illegally.

But they have a pathway where they can pay fines, learn to read, write and speak English and pass a test on it, where they can pass a civics test in English and they pledge allegiance to our values as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And under the programs that I've seen, it would take somewhere between 10 and 13 years for these people to earn their way to a permanent legal status.

MARTIN: Once again, if you're joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Richard Land. He is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And he is scheduled to address the National Hispanic Fellowship of Southern Baptist churches in Orlando on Sunday, where he is going to call for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

You know, why do you think this is such a - what's the word I'm looking for - emotional issue? I just wonder what is it you think pushes people's buttons so profoundly.

LAND: Well, I don't know. I think there are a lot of reasons. I am very concerned about this, and I've come forward to reemphasize this now. Now, I've been talking about this. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution favoring a pathway to citizenship, after you secure the border, in 2006. But I believe that in the light of the passage of the Arizona law - and I see the Arizona law as a cry for help.

The federal government is not enforcing the border, which is the federal government's job. And Arizona is having to deal with the aftermath of a completely open border. But I believe it's rending the social fabric of the nation. I believe that it is breeding animosity and ethnic tensions that will be a lot harder to undo than they were to create.

Every month that passes that we don't deal with this in a comprehensive way, we fan the flames of those ethnic animosities. When I hear from my Hispanic contacts and my Hispanic church members is that there's tremendous fear on the part of the Hispanic community that other states are going to replicate what Arizona is doing and that this will end up in ethnic profiling.

And on the other side, I have people saying to me, look, this is no different than the federal law. The federal government should be doing this, and the federal government's not doing this.

MARTIN: We're down to our last couple of minutes. I wanted to ask about - you've made it clear that this isn't the first time you're saying this, that you've gotten more attention for your views of late. What kind of reaction are you getting?

LAND: It's mixed. I'm getting a strong, supportive reaction from some and strong, adverse reaction from others. But I also have found that some of the adverse reaction is because, really, people who should know better - and in many cases do know better - have been saying that what I'm proposing is amnesty. And when I send these people what I look at as a pathway to legal status and the fact that it'll take 10 to 13 years, they understand this is not amnesty.

MARTIN: Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He's scheduled to address the National Hispanic Fellowship of Southern Baptist Churches in Orlando on Sunday. He's giving us a little preview of the thoughts that he will express there. He joined us from Dallas. Thank you so much for speaking with us, Reverend Land.

LAND: Delighted to be with you.

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