Several national evangelical leaders who recently visited Alabama as part of an "emergency delegation" are denouncing the state's new anti-immigrant law, calling it a moral and humanitarian crisis.
During a Nov. 15 conference call, the religious leaders said they met with local residents, educators, health care workers and pastors at a church in Birmingham, Ala., last week.
The Alabama immigration law is a clear violation of people's civil rights, said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "It's anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-family," he declared. How can a state with so many Christians act in such an unchristian way, he asked.
Rodriguez notes Alabama is a symbol of what is being embraced by other states that want to pursue similar anti-immigrant legislation.
Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law in June. It's considered the nation's toughest anti-immigrant law to date and opponents call it the most oppressive one.
It allows police to question people about their immigration status and arrest them if they are suspected of being in the country illegally. Critics say the law was written to deny undocumented immigrants the ability to work or travel, to own or rent a home and to enter into contracts of any kind.
Fear and panic is widespread in Alabama causing an exodus of Latinos abandoning their homes, jobs and crops in the fields. Utilities are preparing to shut off water, power and heat to customers who cannot show them the right papers.
The law also requires schools to collect information about the residency status of students and share the information with state authorities. Thousands of Latino kids have reportedly dropped out of school fearing deportation.
"It is blatantly obvious that the law enforces racial profiling," said Rev. Danny DeLeon, senior pastor with Calvary Church in Santa Ana, Calif. Lawmakers that approved the law were acting out of emotional prejudice and a lack of common sense, he said. "People's human rights have gone out the window and people's basic needs to survive are in jeopardy while thousands continue to live in fear." The law is sending an ugly message to the younger generation, he said.
Speakers on the call said they intend to continue building dialogue with Christian and other religious leaders in Alabama. They want a speedy, fair and equitable resolution regarding the civil and human rights of immigrants in Alabama. The fear-inducing law does not recognize basic Christian principles including "loving our neighbors as we do ourselves," they note. In fact the law is harming our neighbors, they charge. Everyone living in the U.S. today shares some kind of immigrant background, they added.
Foreigners today should be treated, as our immigrant ancestors were treated in the past, said Rev. Jim Tolle, senior pastor with the Church on the Way in Los Angeles. "I call upon my brothers and sisters to give a cup of cold water to those who are thirsty," he said.
The faith-based leaders noted the shock, deep despair and sadness on many of the faces of the families they met while visiting Alabama. It's not right that families continue to be split apart after some parents are expelled from the country and have been living in the U.S. for over 25 years with absolutely no run-ins with the law, they said. Families are undergoing emotional breakdowns and fleeing the state.
The broken immigration system continues to keep over 11 million undocumented people nationwide living in the shadows, and what's obvious is that we need comprehensive immigration reform on a federal level, speakers said. And mechanisms need to be in place to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants moving forward.
"We need a national movement to succeed. One that aims to accomplish comprehensive immigration reform," said Rodriguez, noting the importance of the 2012 elections. Ultimately, Rodriguez added, "We are opposed to laws that run counter to our morals and Christian values. It's not right and we can find a better way."
According to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey, more than 45 percent of Alabama residents identify themselves as evangelicals. Latinos make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Some of the Alabama law's provisions have been blocked in federal court and others won't take effect until next year. The Roman Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist churches went to court asking a federal judge to block parts of the law that would prevent them from providing services to their immigrant constituents. They were successful, but many immigrants are still living in fear. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn blocked some of those provisions in a separate lawsuit filed by the Obama administration and a coalition of civic groups including the American Civil Liberties Union.
Meanwhile under the Obama administration, nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants were deported in fiscal 2011, an all-time record. In a recently released report the Applied research Center found at least 5,100 children whose parents have been detained or deported are under foster care - a number expected to grow to 15,000 over the next five years.
Photo: Sweet potato farmer Casey Smith, right, looks at a nearly empty sweet potato field that needs cultivating on his father's farm in Cullman, Ala., Sept. 29. Normally, Smith hires 25 laborers to help bring in his crop. Only five workers showed up on the day that Alabama's stringent immigration law took effect. (Dave Martin/AP)