Baptists and Immigration Reform
Throughout the 1970s, an increasing number of Mexican nationals entered illegally into Texas in search of higher-paying jobs and a better life. This influx of immigrants posed significant challenges, especially to the state’s schools and hospitals. In Fort Worth, public school officials refused to enroll the children of these new immigrants and, in 1977, the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to patrol the Texas border, stoking fears of violence.
As immigration stories dominated state and national headlines, the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission offered a confession: “We have overlooked for too long the needs of persons of Hispanic origin.” The CLC urged Texas Baptists to increase the magnitude and scope of their work to meet the physical and spiritual needs of Hispanic immigrants and to remember that “undocumented alien” is merely another way of saying “a person loved by God.”
During these years, the CLC advocated on behalf of immigration reform legislation and insisted that both individuals and churches had a biblical responsibility to help these immigrants to secure citizenship, food, clothing and medical care. The CLC also recognized and acknowledged the politically complex nature of their quest for just and fair immigration laws.
More than 30 years have passed and immigration is once again a subject that is front-and-center in American politics. In recent months, Christians—including many Baptists—have helped spearhead a movement for immigration reform that certainly seems to be gaining momentum.
Last year, the Evangelical Immigration table, a diverse coalition comprised of the nation’s largest evangelical organizations, released a statement of principles for immigration reform. The statement earned the support of a diverse group of Baptists that included the leaders of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas, North American Baptist Conference and Southern Baptist Convention. Suzii Paynter, the new executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also endorsed the statement.
Other Baptist groups have advocated for immigration reform. The American Baptist Home Missions Societies convened a group of American Baptists to participate in “Faith Advocacy Day and Rally for Comprehensive Immigration Reform” on Capitol Hill. At the April gathering of the Alliance of Baptists in Greenville, South Carolina, participants viewed an investigative documentary on the conditions along the United States-Mexico border and discussed ways to give a voice to the voiceless immigrants in our communities. The Baptist Center for Ethics too has been a vocal and persistent supporter of immigration reform, producing a documentary film titled “Gospel Without Borders” that has received widespread ecumenical support.
Additionally, a coalition of ministers affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina held a news conference on April 2 at First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina to urge their U.S. Senators to support comprehensive immigration reform. In the coming days and weeks, various faith-based groups such as the Evangelical Immigration Table will be holding rallies and events in Washington D.C. to persuade Congress—with its “do nothing” reputation—to actually do something good.
A look at history shows us that broad-based coalitions of “odd bedfellows” sometimes are indeed able to work together to achieve a big goal. An excellent example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed into law 20 years ago. Baptists—notably the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty—played a critical role in that process to ensure that government not be allowed to infringe on an individual’s religious freedom in the absence of a compelling state interest.
However, RFRA almost did not become a reality. The idea of a legislative remedy to the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Oregon Employment Division v. Smith united diverse faith communities. The tricky part came when a specific bill was introduced. RFRA was initially met with resistance from pro-life groups. Nearly three years lapsed before Congress finally passed RFRA and the religious liberty bill was signed into law by President Clinton.
Sometimes, however, emerging movements and broad coalitions fizzle and fall apart. Just a handful of years ago, national newspapers and magazines were declaring the greening of evangelicalism. High-profile conservative evangelicals were vowing to be better stewards and promising to mobilize their communities to take political action to combat climate change. In the end, the bipartisan Climate Security Act, designed to modestly regulate greenhouse gas emissions of corporations through a free market “cap and trade” system, was defeated.
In light of this historical backdrop, Baptists who are hopeful for immigration reform should proceed with cautious optimism. Baptists did not quit on RFRA when it died in 1990 and again in 1992. Rather, they participated in the resurrection of RFRA on the third try. Hopefully, Baptists and other Christians will not abandon the cause of comprehensive immigration reform if confronted with political roadblocks similar to those of the past that have led so many briefly-energized evangelical voices to shamefully desert the environmental arena since the supposed “greening” of evangelicalism.
Throughout the highs and lows of this ongoing political process, all would be well served to remember the biblical wisdom echoed by Texas Baptists 30 years ago that an “undocumented” person is merely another way of saying “a person loved by God.”