Clergy’s Role Grows In Migrant Discussion

Clergy's role grows in migrant discussion

By Erin Kelly
The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), October 19, 2009

Washington, DC — As more than 2,500 immigrants rallied at the Capitol in support of comprehensive immigration reform, Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcao of Arizona told the crowd it could count on her and other religious leaders for support.

'We truly are with you,' she said last week as she introduced about a half-dozen Catholic and Protestant clergy members. 'And we believe that God is on your side too.'

But just which side God is on has increasingly become the subject of debate as pro-immigration and anti-immigration forces bring dueling religious leaders to the nation's capital to argue over whose cause is the most righteous.

Both sides are claiming the moral high ground in anticipation of possible congressional legislation on immigration. Although the issue has been put on hold while lawmakers tackle health care and economic recovery, congressional leaders remain hopeful that they can take up the immigration issue early next year. Reform proponents want legislation to include a path toward citizenship for the nation's 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants along with tighter security at U.S. borders.

So far, immigration supporters have done a better job of attracting Christian and Jewish clergy, immigration opponents acknowledge.

The priests, rabbis and ministers who have dominated the public debate on immigration have come out 'almost always on the side of legalization of illegal immigrants and increases in immigration,' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced immigration.

That point has been underscored in just the past few weeks. In addition to the Capitol rally, a key Senate subcommittee debating immigration reform held a hearing this month at which a cardinal, two Protestant ministers from California, one pastor from Minnesota and a religious scholar all spoke in favor of a more liberal immigration policy.

'The current immigration system, which can lead to family separation, suffering and even death, is morally unacceptable and must be reformed,' testified Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., and consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.

Counter argument

Krikorian and other anti-immigration leaders have begun trying to counter that immigrant-friendly, pro-reform sentiment with public appearances and speeches by religious leaders and scholars who argue that religion should not be used to condone illegal immigration.

Dominique Peridans, a Roman Catholic priest who has been a pastor at churches along the Texas-Mexico border and now ministers in Maryland, said he would help an individual illegal immigrant who came to his door in need but cannot endorse the idea of helping millions flout the law.

'My ministry cannot disrespect those (immigration) laws,' Peridans said during a recent discussion of religious perspectives on immigration hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies at the National Press Club.

Supporters of immigration reform unfairly try to paint anyone who disagrees with them as ignoring the biblical admonition to 'love the stranger,' said Stephen Steinlight, author of the book 'No 'Progress by Pesach': The Jewish Establishment's Usurpation of American-Jewish Opinion on Immigration.'

'Immigration reform is not about love,' Steinlight, who is Jewish, said at the press club. He also is a senior analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. 'It's about exploiting cheap labor, Hispanic identity politics and creating a permanent Democratic majority. (The Bible) does not command us to exploit strangers for profit or political advantage.'

Religious influence

The fact that anti-immigration advocates are jumping into the religious debate is evidence that they view their opponents' biblical arguments as especially powerful, said Philip Williams, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.

'To me, it's an indication that they see the power of the moral argument as more persuasive than the legal argument,' said Williams, who has done research on the convergence of religion and politics in the Latino community.

Until now, immigration opponents have emphasized that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law and that rules need to be enforced to secure the borders.

'But those who are advocates of immigration reform have focused on the immigrants as human beings, and asked whether we should treat them as criminals or as brothers and sisters who deserve our compassion and understanding,' Williams said.

The more the public sees the issue as a moral one, the more they will turn to clergy members to see which side they come down on, the professor said.

And, ultimately, those clergy members will have clout in Congress.

'Religious leaders have influence over their congregants, and those congregants are constituents of the legislators in Congress,' Williams said. 'Members of Congress see these churches as important interest groups, and they're going to pay attention.'


Latino churches front line of census battle
By Tony Castro
The Los Angeles Daily News, October 19, 2009

Storefront Latino evangelical churches in the San Fernando Valley and throughout California have become the front line of the 2010 Census battle to count the country's exploding, but elusive, immigrant population.

'We are no longer just about saving souls,' said the Rev. Aaron Morales, pastor of Christian Adonai Church in Van Nuys, 'but about counting them, too.'

Pastors such as Morales have emerged as prominent boosters of the upcoming census as traditional Latino leaders face increasing pressure from large U.S. Latino organizations and other religious clerics who are spearheading a census boycott to force Washington to deal with immigration reform.

Census proponents say millions of dollars in federal aid could be lost if millions of immigrants continue to go uncounted or undercounted.

In recent sermons, Morales has begun preaching the importance of being counted in the census, which has undertaken the difficult task of tracking Latinos in America, particularly the estimated 12 million who are believed to be in the country illegally and are reluctant to fill out official forms.

In addition to federal funding, California's share of political representation can also expand if more people are counted.

'The future of medical care, access to hospitals and schools, our voice in Washington … it is all at stake,' Morales said.

His role is repeated at hundreds of Latino Pentecostal churches in the San Fernando Valley – part of more than 5,500 such congregations in the county – that are part of an outreach to document a national Hispanic population that has ballooned since the 2000 Census, growing 33 percent to an estimated 47 million.

These church leaders are trying to offset the influence of the Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which says it represents 20,000 churches in 34 states.

For months, Rivera has been pushing a census boycott to pressure lawmakers in Washington to finally begin seriously addressing immigration reform.

'Before being counted,' said Rivera, 'we need to be legalized.'

More recently, as Latino leaders kicked off the census campaign, Rivera threatened to expand the boycott call to all Latinos unless there is movement on immigration reform in Congress by Nov. 1.

'Our boycott threat is the only reason why we're beginning to see some movement in Congress on comprehensive immigration reform,' said Rivera, who spreads his message on a Spanish language radio show broadcast in 11 markets.

The boycott has drawn the support of the Mexican American Political Association, the oldest Latino political organization in California, whose leaders say the group has distributed 250,000 fliers throughout the state with the message:

'No to the census. Before you enumerate us you must legalize us.'

Morales has urged the Hispanic Ministerial Alliance of Los Angeles to deal with issue head-on.

'The threat this poses is very real and shouldn't be taken lightly,' he said. 'We need to impress on each of our congregations that not to participate in the census jeopardizes our future in California and in America.'

Political experts say the importance of these Latino evangelical churches, many of them renting retail storefront spaces, is that they are the grass roots for many of the transient first-generation immigrants who could be missed in the census count.

'The message to participate in the census coming from the mayor and other leaders is heard by Hispanics who are second, third and fourth generation in the U.S.,' said political consultant William Orozco, who often caters campaigns to religious groups. 'But they don't connect with first-generation immigrants.

'Their connection, their moral compass, are the pastors.'

Experts say it is difficult at this stage, less than six months before the start of the 2010 Census, to gauge the effect of the boycott, though Orozco feels there could be less support for it in California, since Rivera's group is New Jersey-based and largely unknown in the West and Southwest.

'That's why the pastors of these evangelical churches here are so important to the census,' Orozco said.

For Morales and other ministers urging census participation, recent sermons have also included a civics lesson for their congregations.

The census taken every 10 years, he tells his faithful, counts all people regardless of immigration status. The numbers are then used by the federal government to allocate federal funds for education, health care, housing, transportation and other local needs.

Although many of the congregants only hope to one day be able to vote, they are informed that the census is also used to apportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which are based on each state's population.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that promotes immigration restrictions, California's sizable illegal immigrant population allowed it to gain three House seats it might otherwise not have received after the 2000 Census.

Still, it is believed that Latinos were undercounted in the 2000 Census by an estimated 3 percent, with blame placed on fears that the information illegal immigrants give to the census could lead to their deportation.

Traditional Latino leaders and organizations have sought to downplay the boycott, which they predict will be offset by a Census Bureau media blitz.

A census spokesman said the agency will spend almost $28 million on advertising in Latino media for the 2010 census, an increase from $19 million spent during the 2000 Census. For the first time, the Census Bureau will send bilingual forms to largely Latino areas.

'This is the most important census ever for the Latino community,' said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, which is one of the groups leading the pro-census campaign.

'Anybody who suggests someone not be counted in the census is fundamentally irresponsible. It's an immoral suggestion.'