BIRMINGHAM, Ala.-Pablo Moscoso is the pastor of Iglesia Agape, an evangelical Hispanic church in Hoover, Ala., where four families, three of whom were in the United States illegally, have left the small church since a new state immigration law went into effect last September. Moscoso tells the remaining members of his congregation to cooperate with police, who he said are just doing their jobs. "Our position is to take care of their lives," Moscoso said. "I have to go visit them in jail. They are brothers in Christ."
The law the Alabama legislature passed last June, known as HB 56, is widely regarded as the strictest immigration law in the country, going steps beyond the more famous Arizona law and other recent imitators.
Under the Alabama law, anyone who knowingly "harbors," "transports," or enters into contracts with undocumented immigrants can be held liable. It prohibits illegal immigrants from using local or state public services. It requires businesses to check employees' status and schools to check enrolling students' status. Police officers may check immigration status if they have a suspicion that an individual is illegal.
After courts struck down portions of the bill, the Republican leaders in the legislature have said they plan to introduce legislation soon to tweak it further, but they promised to keep the main elements.
The law is popular in Alabama but diverse church leaders-Reformed Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and Catholics-are bothered by the hostile atmosphere it has created toward all Hispanics, including those who are in the state legally and who tend to make up the state's immigrant population (although the Alabama police memorably arrested a visiting German executive from Mercedes-Benz soon after the law passed because he didn't have his immigration papers with him).
Church ministries say the law has driven many Hispanics from the state (the law was, after all, intended to encourage self-deportation), and many of those who stayed are reluctant to leave their homes for fear of being questioned. The pastors say they are especially sensitive about the law because of the state's racial history. And some, who believe the Alabama law is rightly discouraging illegal immigration, resent the way the law recruits average citizens to be enforcers, requiring them to check immigration status in various aspects of everyday life.
Carlos Gomez, 71, is a sprightly Puerto Rican pastor who moved to Alabama during the civil-rights movement and now pastors the Hispanic congregation at First Baptist Church of Center Point, a suburb of Birmingham. He doesn't ask his congregants' status, but he guesses half of his congregation is undocumented.
Many families left the congregation after the law went into effect. Hispanic families are so close-knit, he said, that even if a family is legal, if an aunt were living in Alabama illegally, the whole family would leave the state for her sake.
Hispanic pastors say some of their churches have lost as much as half of their congregations. They have had trouble finding churches that will rent space to them out of fear that those congregations might be charged with "harboring" illegals. One church has had to move twice in the last year over those fears. Hispanic pastors have had trouble convincing their parishioners to get official marriage licenses, the one type of license undocumented immigrants are allowed to apply for under the new law. When they do, they find state officials aren't educated on the law, either, because some refuse to grant marriage licenses, pastors say.
The changes in Alabama are sending Hispanics to other states. Just over the border in Tennessee, La Paz Chattanooga, a nonprofit that offers various aid to Hispanics, has seen its client list from Alabama grow, according to the group's director.
The Alabama law's provision against harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants, as well as the provision against contracts with illegals, worried some ministries that work with and provide housing for undocumented immigrants. The Catholic Church, along with the local Methodist and Episcopal bishops, filed a lawsuit in August against the state, arguing that the law could hold them liable for carrying out acts of mercy.
A federal judge denied the churches' challenge to the contract provision because they hadn't suffered injury yet and thus lacked standing. But in ruling on a separate lawsuit from the Justice Department, the judge threw out the provision against harboring and transporting undocumented immigrants. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has loudly urged federal immigration reform, but he said he isn't worried that churches would be prosecuted for their ministry under the Alabama law: "God help any government that tries to prosecute that."
But the average Alabaman is at least more cautious now. Laura Wolfe, an ESL teacher at a public elementary school in Birmingham, wondered whether she would face consequences for driving the Hispanic mother of one of her students to church. "Are you supposed to ask them before they get in the car, 'Are you a U.S. citizen?'" she said.
After the law passed, the mothers of many of her students were scared, she said, and they would come to her after school to help decorate her classroom and ask questions about the law. One of the mothers, who is undocumented, went to the county health department when her son was sick and the department said they couldn't see him because of the law, even though the mother had money to pay. "So if they're not getting healthcare from the health department, they're going to the emergency room," Wolfe said. Wolfe hasn't lost many students due to the law, but the families she knows are more careful about leaving their homes.
"It's illegal to cross the border, it is, but we've let them in. They're here," Wolfe said. "My greatest fear is they'll become part of the entitlement society." Wolfe along with a half dozen people from her church, Altadena Valley Presbyterian, spent several years teaching English to parents in a trailer park where many of them live, and eventually in a church gym across the street.
But this is all anecdotal. The fate of many of these state laws (see below) rests in the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear the Justice Department's case against the Arizona immigration law on April 25. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently heard arguments against Alabama's law, temporarily blocked two sections of the law from going into effect but said it would withhold judgment on the state law until the Supreme Court had issued its decision on Arizona's law.
Alabama had an estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants in 2010 according to the Pew Hispanic Center, but the state had not experienced the acute immigrant burdens and drug trafficking of border states. Legislators said the immigration bill would be one way to reduce unemployment. And the state's unemployment rate has gone down over a point since the law passed, but economists and legislators debate the reason for the drop. Alabama's labor force also has shrunk by about 40,000 from January 2011 to January 2012, according the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations' seasonally adjusted numbers, meaning the unemployment rate has gone down in part because people have quit looking for jobs. Farmers say they cannot find enough U.S. citizens to do the physical work of picking tomatoes or onions at the low wages they offer.
The Southern Baptist Convention's Land explains that the United States has put a "No Trespassing" sign at the border right next to a "Help Wanted" sign: "You can't have the government ignore its own law for 20 years without undermining the respect for the rule of law."
The Southern Baptist Convention at its meeting last year in Phoenix passed a resolution-with about 80 percent of the vote-calling for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The resolution called on the U.S. government to secure its borders and hold businesses accountable for hiring practices, but also issued a "call on our churches to be the presence of Christ, in both proclamation and ministry, to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status," rejecting "bigotry or harassment against any persons."
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) passed a similar resolution in 2009 that calls for border security and a path to citizenship for upstanding undocumented immigrants as long as they pay some kind of fine or penalty.
World Relief, the relief arm of the NAE, has recently begun sending out two U.S. church liaisons, Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, to address immigration on Christian college campuses and churches, including in Alabama. "We're paying a lot of attention to these bills," said Soerens. He finds it "disturbing" that such a law would pass in a state that is in the heart of the Bible Belt. "There's an attitude, 'They're not going to enforce this against pastors,'" he said. "They shouldn't be passing laws in the first place that make pastors fearful of doing ministry."
In February about 80 black, white, and Hispanic pastors from Reformed Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and Pentecostal denominations met at Samford University, the red-brick Southern Baptist college in Birmingham, to talk over the new immigration provisions. When one of the organizers asked who in the room supported the law, only a few raised their hands. But toward the end of the day-long gathering, one woman leaned over to me and almost whispered, "Talk to him." She pointed to John Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church and the vice president of the Alabama state board of missions for the Southern Baptists. "He feels the way a lot of people feel," she said, before slipping out of the room.
Killian was ready to share his feelings outside in the relative balminess of a February evening in Alabama. In the room with the other pastors, "I was either Daniel in the lion's den or a fly in the ointment, depending on your perspective." He supports the law because he sees the government's role as that of an enforcer. "They called it a hate law. ... It's not a racial issue," he said. "Should I treat an illegal immigrant right? Absolutely. ... But that doesn't mean [they] don't pay the consequences of the law." Ideas like those proposed by Land's commission and others-a "Marshall Plan" for Mexico, a national identity card, and the like-Killian waved off as just more government: "I wanna know, how you gonna pay for it?"
In Washington, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which examines how the church can biblically interact with public policy, is preparing a mailing of "The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible" by Trinity International University professor James Hoffmeier. Copies of the book will go out to 150 Southern Baptist clergy in Alabama with a cover letter from Killian. He writes, "Various denominational leaders have challenged the compassion of the [Alabama] bill, stating that Christian conscience demands a policy that would not wish to discourage massive illegal immigration into our state. Frankly I am proud that our Alabama Baptist leaders did not jump on the bandwagon criticizing HB 56. ... I do NOT believe that a pro-open borders policy is consistent with biblical principles."
Land said the state convention had asked the national convention leaders to get involved on previous state legislature issues, like fighting the state lottery. But in the immigration debate, the Alabama churches never asked national leaders for help.
Thomas Ackerman, the vicar over the Hispanic ministry at Prince of Peace Catholic Parish, has delivered several homilies to his congregation that mention immigration, on "the attitude we should have in approaching it, not so much the politics," he said. "There needs to be charity."
He personally opposes the law but described his parish as "pretty conservative. ... We're not as conservative as other parishes in Alabama, but-we're in Alabama." Prince of Peace is a sizeable church with an attached school in Hoover, Ala., a Birmingham suburb that has new blacktop roads and new strip malls filled with new cars. The church has about 2,200 families, as well as 500 to 600 Hispanics at an afternoon Mass every Sunday.
On a Friday at the school down the hall from the church, classes changed and kids came pouring out of their Spanish class. The kids all greeted Ackerman, who looks like the cool adult on campus, excitedly in the hallway. Some of the children from Hispanic families in the church go to the school, but "cost is a big problem," Ackerman said.
A sign outside the Prince of Peace sanctuary said "No food or drink," with a Spanish translation below it, and Spanish and English literature was sprawled out on tables. The church hosts ESL classes, medical screenings, and parenting courses. Since the law passed, Hispanic attendance at events at Prince of Peace during the week has dropped off, but the Sunday Mass has burgeoned. "People are worried so they're turning to God," explained Ackerman.
Nine miles to the northeast, Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a Birmingham congregation with about 4,300 members, has planted a Hispanic church. Briarwood's leaders heard enough rumblings after the immigration law passed that they feared it would interfere with the church's ministry, so they along with the church's legal counsel met with state officials.
Senior pastor Harry Reeder said he told officials, "My job is a pastor, your job is to take care of the state. We're not going to be checking citizenship papers for ministry. ... Do you have a problem with that?" He said the state officials assured him that the state would not interfere in the church's work, and so far that has held true. "I don't know of a single instance where we've been stopped from anything. ... I haven't seen the state come in and look over our shoulder or make us their enforcement agency," he said.
The law "has affected the number of Hispanics in the state for us to reach," Reeder said, but the Hispanic ministry is growing. World Relief's Soerens concurred. "We're seeing the church grow really dramatically in immigrant communities. ... That doesn't mean this is an easy issue, it means we can't say, 'This is not my problem.'"