Moving forward?

By RICHARD N. OSTLING AP Religion Writer Published:

Immigration, a tough U.S. public policy dispute, is a central theme in the Bible.

Consider forefather Abraham, moving from present-day Iraq to present-day Turkey, then to the Holy Land, with a sojourn in Egypt. His descendants went back to Egypt, departed, spent 40 years as migrants and settled again in the Holy Land.

The infant Jesus was a political refugee in Egypt whose parents fled Herod. As an itinerant adult, Jesus said the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

Those scriptural examples are cited in Strangers No Longer, an unusual joint immigration policy issued in 2003 by the Roman Catholic bishops of Mexico and the United States.

Its legitimate to control borders, the bishops stated, but nations who are able to receive (immigrants) should do so whenever possible, and Christians must always help the most vulnerable.

But applying such biblical principles isnt simple, as shown in a recent Newsweek item by Steven Waldman and scriptural texts analyzed on Waldmans interfaith Web site, beliefnet.com.

Though some considered the U.S. Senate bill too indulgent toward illegal immigrants, Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Catholic hierarchys committee on migration, declared some aspects too strict.

Barnes urged Congress to soften the bills harsh enforcement provisions, streamline the process for illegals to earn citizenship, give temporary workers a permanent residency option and reduce waiting times for reuniting families.

The Rev. Randy Day, general secretary of the United Methodist Churchs General Board of Global Ministries, typified views among mainline and liberal Protestant leaders.

Day criticized all sides. The House bill was inhumane and punitive, he said, but aspects of the Senate version roused xenophobia, or the fear and dislike of strangers. He accused the executive branch led by fellow Methodist George W. Bush of also fomenting xenophobia.

Dispatching National Guard troops to the border with Mexico and support for declaring English as the national language were scare tactics and measures of malice, Day asserted.

What about ordinary parishioners? Pew Research Center polling this year showed majorities of non-Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) and white mainline Protestants (52 percent) thought immigrants were a burden, taking our jobs, housing and health care. Asked whether immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values, 51 percent of mainliners and 48 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics said yes. (Percentages were similar among all Americans, and higher among white evangelicals.)

An evangelical case based on the Bible was issued by the Rev. Richard Land, social-issues spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, Americas largest Protestant denomination. He put priority on Romans 13:1-7, which says everyone should be respectful and subject to government in its God-given duty to oppose bad conduct and execute (Gods) wrath on the wrongdoer.

Christians must extend compassion to immigrants in need, Land said, but citizens also have a right to expect the government to fulfill its divinely ordained mandate to punish those who break the laws. That includes deciding who may cross our borders and protecting national sovereignty, national security.

Land judged past performance of both Democrats and Republicans disgraceful and said citizens will accept guest worker or earned residency programs only if theyre convinced the borders are secure.

Another conservative, Chief Counsel Jan LaRue of Concerned Women for America, chided Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for suggesting Jesus himself would be judged a criminal under tough Republican proposals.

LaRue cited Romans 13 and 14 other Bible passages on law and order, property rights and the legitimacy of tribal and national boundaries as parts of Gods design.

True, the Bible says that when theres direct conflict, believers are to follow Peters dictum: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But, LaRue said, there is nothing in Scripture that prohibits nations to secure their borders to prevent illegal entry.

On the Net: Beliefnet on immigration: http://www.beliefnet.com/features/immigrationfaiths.html

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