Immigration reform optimism voiced by Baptist policy group & Chamber of Commerce

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission both regard immigration reform as a priority at the start of a new session of Congress, representatives of the two groups said at a Jan. 17 news conference in Washington.

"We do not intend to let this fail," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the ERLC, the public policy entity of the nation's largest non-Catholic religious body.

"We will stay on top of this until Washington, D.C., and our country finally [do] what is right by the 12 million who are here looking to us to do something to help resolve their dilemma," Duke said.

Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business organization, told reporters at the news conference "a sense of consensus" is growing among people who have been on opposite sides of enacting immigration reform.

Americans with widely divergent views have contended for years the federal government's failure to deal with immigration has resulted in a broken system and from 11 to 12 million undocumented, or illegal, immigrants in this country.

The National Immigration Forum (NIF) -- which organized the news conference of religious, business and law enforcement spokesmen -- cited three consensus points for broad reform: 1) Recognition of the need for border security and safety in communities; 2) establishment of a just pathway to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants while respecting those who have long awaited naturalization; 3) modernization of the immigration laws that includes worker programs that aid the workforce and economy.

Carlos Gutierrez, Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush and now vice chairman of Citigroup, also expressed optimism in his comments at the news conference.

"There have been more people coming out in favor," Gutierrez said. "There are people who have moderated their stance on this from six years ago, and I think part of that is just an understanding that [failure to act] is very bad for the country."

The optimism comes after the last push for immigration reform in 2007 failed despite Bush's efforts. November's election results, which reform advocates said demonstrated the increased voting power of Hispanics, appear to provide a significant reason for legislative movement.

Immigration, however, has yet to reach the level of importance it must for enactment of reform, Gutierrez said, adding gun control has surpassed it as a priority in Washington.

"This has to become the No. 1 priority for the president and for Congress. Get people together to say, 'We're going to fix this problem, because it's important enough to be fixed.' And that hasn't happened yet. And I think it has to be a lot more than just a couple of very nice sentences in the State of the Union address," Gutierrez told reporters.

Donohue said, "The bottom line on immigration is that the status quo on immigration in our country is a fundamental loser."

A super political action committee (PAC) to aid GOP candidates who support such change -- Republicans for Immigration Reform -- is nearing a launch, Gutierrez said. The super PAC will "give cover" to those who publicly advocate immigration reform, he said.

Ali Noorani, NIF's executive director, still said the new congressional session is the "best opportunity for broad immigration reform in nearly a decade."

Duke pointed to a new reform proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and developments among other congressional Republicans as indications of progress. "I think the determination is there at this point" in both parties, he said.

The ERLC is visiting with House members and communicating with Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians regarding immigration reform, Duke said. As part of its efforts, the ERLC joined with an evangelical coalition, the Evangelical Immigration Table, in inaugurating Jan. 14 the "I Was a Stranger" challenge. The initiative -- which can be accessed online at http://evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/iwasastranger/ -- provides a Bible verse for reflection on the issue on each of 40 days.

While advocates for immigration reform have various reasons for their support, it is a moral and humanitarian issue for the ERLC, Duke said. In the Bible, God instructs His Old Testament people, the Israelites, to love the stranger among them, Duke said.

"[W]hen we read that, we understand that God has an expectation for how a people with power would treat those who are vulnerable and weak in their presence," he told reporters.

"It is not possible to respond to the plight of those who are here living in the shadows compassionately without actually speaking to their circumstances in trying to assist them," Duke said. "I don't know how you could have a clear conscience thinking that we're going to in some kind of way consign 12 million people possibly to perpetual poverty and as a perpetual underclass in this country. ... It is simply not the right thing to do. It is certainly not the humanitarian thing to do. It is indeed not the Christian thing to do."

Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.


Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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