Associated Press/Photo by Dave Martin

Law and orders

Immigration | Alabama church leaders say the state's tough new immigration law is hostile to all Hispanics and creates obstacles to ministry

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

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.

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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."


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