WASHINGTON — Religious leaders and lawmakers traded Scripture passages Wednesday at a congressional hearing on whether there's an ethical imperative to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Arguing for a comprehensive immigration package with a guest-worker program, Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, quoted from Matthew, Leviticus and Micah in pressing for action on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S.
Southern Baptists respect and strongly support upholding America's laws, he said, but they "also recognize a biblical mandate to care for 'the least of these among us' (Matthew 25:34-40), to care for the 'strangers' who reside in our land (Leviticus 19:34; Hebrews 13:2) and to act justly and mercifully (Micah 6:8)," Land told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.
Opponents of a comprehensive immigration overhaul came to the hearing with biblical passages of their own.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, read a quote from Romans 13:1-7 that crystallized the argument for enhanced border security and strict enforcement of existing federal immigration laws: "Let every person be subject to governing authorities."
"I suspect we will hear today that it is somehow immoral or unethical to enforce our nation's laws, and that we should ignore our laws," Smith said. "For those who want to take this approach, there is just one problem: the Bible contains numerous passages that support the rule of law."
While both sides argued, they agreed on at least two things: that the nation's immigration system is broken and that the federal government has abdicated its responsibility over the years by not seriously addressing the issue.
"The crisis the country is witnessing in Arizona over immigration is the result of a failed immigration policy at the federal level," said Mathew Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law and a supporter of comprehensive immigration legislation. "The Arizona law is a symptom and a cry for help. However, the Constitution places the responsibility for immigration on the federal government, not the states."
Prospects that Washington might tackle the problem this year appear bleak. President Barack Obama, who's been getting heat from Hispanics and others to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to revamp immigration laws, implored Congress to address the issue in a speech two weeks ago.
However, many members of the House of Representatives and the Senate aren't eager to take on what they consider a politically radioactive issue in an election year. Leading House Democrats say the Senate must moves immigration legislation first.
Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., came up with a framework for a bill, but there's no consensus on any bill that could command a majority in either chamber.
Still, witnesses who testified Wednesday urged Congress to do something before more states follow Arizona's lead in enacting punitive laws of their own.
Land called for more border security, stringent enforcement of existing immigration laws, and the implementation of a guest worker program to provide a path to citizenship for those who are already in the U.S. illegally.
"Some critics, however, suggest that 'comprehensive reform' is code for amnesty, but such action is not amnesty because it does not merely pardon an offender. My proposal requires lawbreakers to pay a fine, learn to read, write and speak English, and follow a rigorous process for legal status. Penalties, probation, and requirements do not equal amnesty. Going to the back of the line . . . to come here legally is not amnesty."
However, James Edwards, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, told the subcommittee that he considers such a policy an amnesty program that would adversely impact "native-born minorities," teenagers, legal immigrants, ex-convicts, the disabled and other low-wage workers.
He suggested in prepared remarks that it would be more fiscally responsible for lawmakers to "reduce immigration and forgo legalization" while the U.S. economy is in such bad shape.
"Immigration is one of those issues in which Scripture does not detail a normative policy," he said. "This issue differs from clear-cut biblical precepts such as prohibiting murder, stealing or perjury."
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