Illegal Immigrants Divide Churches, Politicians

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Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles made a point this week of saying that immigrants' legal status should not affect how the church ministers to them. But the debate over illegal immigrants creates tension between politicians and religious leaders.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This week the U.S. Senate began debate on a wide-ranging immigration reform bill. Some religious leaders injected themselves very publicly into that debate. They lobbied Senators to extend legal residency to illegal immigrants and to end border militarization. NPR's Ted Robbins reports that churches have long been activists for immigrant causes.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

At a mud adobe shrine in Downtown Tucson this week, an interfaith group began a 40-day Lenten Passover fast. The shrine is called El Tiradito, the Castaway. Legend has it that a man was murdered here in the 1870s, the victim of a love triangle. It's become a place for people to say prayers. This day four more recent victims, immigrants who risked their lives illegally crossing the desert to enter the U.S. Rick Ufford-Chase is the head of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Mr. RICK UFFORD-CHASE (Head of Presbyterian Church USA.): There is a huge fear-mongering going on about migrants and anybody who is foreign to the United States, and it's the time that the church must stand up and insist that we're going to live those fundamental gospel values of welcoming the stranger.

ROBBINS: The larger divide over immigration is between those who want to welcome and shelter the stranger and those who see the stranger as a threat to economic or national security.

At mass on Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who heads the nation's largest archdiocese in Los Angeles, clearly took sides. Mahoney articulated the U.S. Catholic Church's position that an immigrant's legal status should not be an issue for the church.

Cardinal ROGER MAHONEY (Catholic Archdiocese, Los Angeles): We must be able to minister to people regardless of how they got here. People come up to communion here, we give them communion.

ROBBINS: If that's all the church wants to do, restrictionists like Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, say the bill before Congress should not be a threat.

Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, Federation for American Immigration Reform): It is not intended to affect the daily activities of the church or its administration of religious rites or even providing people who need food with food. What it is intended to do is address the situation where you have religious institutions that are actively engaged in harboring people who are in the country illegally.

ROBBINS: But some religious institutions have actively engaged in aiding illegal immigrants. The tradition goes back at least to the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Back then, religious activists in southern Arizona helped Central American war refugees illegally cross the border. Next month, two members of the faith-based organization No More Deaths are scheduled to stand trial in Arizona on charges they transported illegal immigrants last summer. They say they were taking the immigrants to the hospital. But they do advocate open borders.

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who aggressively supports strict border enforcement, says these religious activists are misguided.

Representative THOMAS G. TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): They can have a sort of high-minded attitude toward the idea of borders, but I have a responsibility here also, and I consider it also a moral responsibility. And part of that is to secure your own border.

ROBBINS: The proposed law before Congress could make prosecuting immigration activists easier. It would expand the definition of human smuggling to essentially include anyone who knowingly aids illegal immigrants. But many church leaders say that would be a bad law. Rick Ufford-Chase of the Presbyterian Church.

Mr. UFFORD-CHASE: The question is how do we create good law that welcomes those folks who we need in our labor force and offers them a place to do work for reasonable remuneration so they can support their families?

ROBBINS: Tom Tancredo is also a Presbyterian, an Evangelical Presbyterian, and he says he too welcomes the stranger, with a catch.

TANCREDO: I have no qualms about welcoming the legal stranger in this land. No qualms whatsoever.

ROBBINS: He sees it as a legal and economic issue, not a religious one. Tancredo says the business community has an interest in promoting immigration, so it has a supply of cheap labor, and he acknowledges that together with mainstream churches, they are powerful foes.

TANCREDO: When you put them together with the corporate interests, they're difficult to overcome, they are. I guarantee you.

ROBBINS: Still, Tancredo and others pushing for tighter border security believe a majority of American voters support their views. He's hoping that those in the pews won't practice what church leaders are preaching. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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