Alabama made headlines last week by becoming the most recent state to pass a tough immigration law that supporters hope will drive undocumented immigrants out of the state. The bill, which one of sponsors called “an Arizona bill with an Alabama twist,” actually goes well beyond the scope of the controversial SB 1070 that was passed in Arizona last year, including a provision that would require public schools to ask for students’ legal status and another that makes it a crime to rent an apartment to an undocumented immigrant.
There are many reasons to be concerned with this bill, which Governor (and Southern Baptist deacon) Robert Bentley signed into law on Thursday and which takes effect September 1st. I want to focus on one particular element of the bill that mirrors statutes now on the books in Oklahoma, Arizona, and other states that should be of particular concern to Christians: it could very easily be interpreted to criminalize ministry. That’s because these bills make it a crime to knowingly transport someone who is present unlawfully in the United States—language presumably designed to target human smugglers, but which in effect also could make it illegal to bring an undocumented person to church.
That’s a huge concern for a lot of churches, particularly those with many immigrants within their congregations. Undocumented immigrants are, in most states, ineligible for driver’s licenses, so many rely on someone to pick them up if they’re going to make it to church on any given Sunday. To do so in Alabama if this bill becomes law, though, the driver of that vehicle will be risking serious fines and even imprisonment.
This presents a big problem for Christians who are trying to be faithful to Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples (Matthew 28:19) and who are accustomed to doing so in the context of regular church gatherings. It’s also a problem as we seek to obey Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbors (Luke 10:27), since the example that Jesus gives of what it looks like to love one’s neighbor—the Good Samaritan who transports someone in need to get help—could also be criminalized under these provisions. It seems to me that these laws present a situation where the state government is “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Pastor Rick Warren says that “The church must always show compassion, always… A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person. ‘Are you legal or illegal?’” Under these new laws though, the Samaritan might need to ask for evidence of legal status before extending compassion.
Some would argue that these laws were not written with churches in mind and are not being actively enforced against churches—which seems generally to be true in the states where they are already on the books—and that though federal statutes carry similar language prohibiting the transportation of undocumented immigrants “in furtherance of” their violation of the law, some (though not all) Circuit Courts of Appeals have found that transporting undocumented immigrants for religious or humanitarian purposes does not meet this standard. The very existence of these laws presents a challenge to many churches, though, who wrestle with whether they should risk violating a law that has not yet been tested in the courts—and with whether this is a case when “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) or whether we are still bound to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). It’s not enough for a state to wink to the churches and tell them that they won’t be enforcing this law against them while passing laws that might, in the mind of a reasonable judge, criminalize Christian ministry: passing short-sighted, illogical laws that were never meant to be fully enforced in order to win election-season points is what has created such a mess of our immigration legal system in the first place.
It is in part because of concerns that a spattering of such competing state laws could marginalize Christian ministry that so many evangelical leaders have become outspoken advocates of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, calling upon the Congress in Washington, D.C.—which is the only body of government that can effectively solve our nation’s immigration problems—to make it easier for immigrants to enter lawfully in ways that keep our economy moving and keep families together, to make it harder to migrate or work illegally, and to require those who are currently undocumented to pay a fine and get on a long-term path toward citizenship and integration. Legislators, though, need to hear from more than just leaders: they need to know from the folks “in the pew” that solving our nation’s immigration challenges is a priority that we need our representatives in Washington to address.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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