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Law and orders

"Law and orders" Continued...

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

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.

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