The wall on the U.S.-Mexican border decorated with crosses. (Ellin Jimmerson photo)
The wall on the U.S.-Mexican border decorated with crosses. (Ellin Jimmerson photo)

Immigration up next for Obama, Baptists

Religious groups, including CBF and the Alliance of Baptists, urge Americans to educate themselves and prepare to contact legislators as the immigration reform debate prepares to take center stage at the White House and Capitol Hill.

By Jeff Brumley

With the government shutdown over, Republican and Tea Party leaders say they are primed to battle President Obama over one of his top agenda items, one just as big as health care: immigration reform.

But any such campaign will feel be met with considerable pushback from American religious groups, including many Baptists.

“You will continue to hear CBF speak out,” Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said about immigration reform at the state and national levels.

“Our participation with the Evangelical Immigration Table has been consistent and will continue to be,” she added. “I think you will see the whole faith community continue to speak on this.”

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The Table brings together broad range of Christian groups, including theological liberals like Sojourners and conservative ones like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The organization says participants are united in “advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values.”

That group isn’t alone. Groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual activists working in U.S. border states are calling for reforms that would go far beyond most legislation coming out of the White House and Congress so far.

But they have their work cut out for them. Some Republicans and Tea Party leaders were declaring a give-no-ground opposition on immigration reform even before the shutdown ended.

USA Today quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Oct. 17 saying he looked forward to “making sure we do immigration reform.”

“Good luck,” was the reply from South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House immigration committee.

Like-minded conservatives will have plenty of support from the Tea Party, which urges followers to warn Republicans and Democrats to oppose “amnesty” from undocumented aliens or face vigorous challenges for office in 2014.

‘Educate yourself’

Alabamian Ellin Jimmerson agrees that Americans should contact legislators on the subject of immigration – but to seek radical reform, not oppose it.

The civil rights and community activist and self-described Baptist liberation theologian also urges caution before making calls and sending letters or e-mails on the subject.

“The thing I advise people is to be very, very careful when asking their senator or representatives for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Jimmerson, minister to the community at Weatherly Heights Baptist, a CBF-partner church in Huntsville.

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That caution is necessary because words like “comprehensive” and “reform” can mean different things to different people. She noted that politicians behind that Alabama’s draconian immigration law -- now largely dismantled -- considered it to be “comprehensive reform” because attacked undocumented migrants on many fronts.

Jimmerson hasn’t waited for the president or even other faith groups to advocate for immigrants, saying they don’t go far enough with their proposals. So she made a documentary titled The Second Cooler, a reference to an additional morgue opened in Arizona to store the bodies of immigrants who die in the U.S. desert.

Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, the film leads viewers through the dangers on the American-Mexican borders and connects the fate of immigrants to various free trade agreements that have pushed more of them north into the United States.

For now, her canvassing is presenting the award-winning film to as many audiences that she can. In the meantime, she urges people to learn as much as they can about the systemic economic and political factors driving the immigration debate.

“I would say educate yourself as to what comprehensive immigration reform is and what the bills themselves really are,” she said.

‘How we treat people’

Americans also must keep the rest of the planet in mind when they speak and act on this issue, said Paula Dempsey, director of Partnership Relations for the Alliance of Baptists.

Dempsey recently returned from a trip to Morocco where she witnessed the struggles of African immigrants who tried to get to Europe for work. Those who haven’t made it end up in camps, often with no hope of entering Europe and no money to get back home.

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“This is a much larger problem than we face in the U.S.,” she said.

The United States has an opportunity to live out gospel values by setting the example on immigration, Dempsey added.

“We ought to be modeling for the rest of the world how we treat people ... and how God would have us responding to people who are hungry.”