Main Menu

Immigration reform bill has potential to jeopardize church ministries

Immigration reform bill has potential to jeopardize church ministries

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Immigration reform bill has potential to jeopardize church ministries

March 17, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0459}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

An immigration reform bill currently before the U.S. Senate may impact the way the Florida Conference and local churches do ministry with immigrants living in the state. The crux of the issue may be how specific words in the bill are interpreted.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — United Methodist Bishop Forrest Stith and other religious leaders lead an interfaith prayer service during a March 7 immigration reform rally in Washington. Attended by thousands, the protests are aimed at stopping H.R. 4437, which would expand the definition of “alien smuggling” and subject clergy, social workers and advocates to jail time or fines for such acts as providing shelter and transportation to undocumented immigrants. A UMNS photo by Rick Reinhard, Photo #06-0322.

The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last December and is now being considered by the Senate. The bill includes a host of sections designed to "amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen enforcement of the immigration laws, to enhance border security, and for other purposes," according to the U.S. government's Legislation and Congressional Affairs Web site.

Several sections are troubling to leaders within The United Methodist Church, as well as those of other denominations, because of the language used and the uncertainty of how it will be interpreted by law enforcement agencies. Section 202 of the bill makes it illegal to "assist, encourage, direct, or induce" a person to come to, enter or remain in the United States.

The Rev. Janet Horman is an immigration attorney and pastor of Killian Pines United Methodist Church in Miami, an area that's home to many immigrants and migrant workers. She said there is some debate about what the word assist really means and how broadly it will be enforced.

Depending on how the law is interpreted if the bill passes, individuals providing assistance through such hospitality ministries as food and shelter after a hurricane, health and legal clinics, food banks, and homeless shelters could be considered in violation of the law and prosecuted. The interpretation could also vary from state to state, county to county and city to city.

"Each prosecutor in each county determines whether or not there is a violation of the law," Horman said. "Different churches in difference parts of the country could be treated differently."

Horman feels the phrase that includes the word assist needs to be deleted from the bill because of its potential, if broadly interpreted, to infringe on the free expression of religion, which is unconstitutional.

"The church's job is to be in ministry to all people in need. We need to be able to practice that without being afraid of breaking the law," she said. "It would be horrible for churches to have to become immigration experts to determine who is a legal immigrant and who is not. Our job is ... not to be the enforcement arm of the government of the United States."

Panravee Vongjaroenrat says the bill is "overly broad." "It's a rewriting of (existing) law so it broadly infringes on the normal activity of helping people," she said. "That's when it's wrong."

Vongjaroenrat is an immigration attorney with the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) ministry, which partners with conferences and districts to establish clinics that provide legal advice to immigrants to help them in the process of gaining legal status. She helped the Florida Conference's Refugee Ministry and staff in the East Central District establish a clinic in the Orlando area last year as the first phase of the ministry in Florida. The second phase involves expanding to Tampa and Fort Pierce to start clinics there, which is set to happen soon.

Those clinics, and others around the country, could be affected if the bill passes, according to Vongjaroenrat. The legal advice given to immigrants at the clinics could be construed as assisting people to remain in the United States and in violation of the law.

Vongjaroenrat said she has heard some senators and representatives say that scenario is an exaggerated interpretation, but church members and their ministries are already being affected by the push toward stronger enforcement of immigration  law. Vongjaroenrat cited an incident last November in which church volunteers were arrested in Arizona for transporting a group of undocumented immigrations to a hospital for treatment.

"So when lawmakers say it doesn't apply (to church ministries), they are wrong. It has already been used against church workers," she said, referring to current laws that make it illegal under a variety of circumstances to transport immigrants.

Vongjaroenrat said many church volunteers will not care about being targeted if the bill passes and will continue their work in defiance of the law and as an act of civil disobedience. Others will be worried about the possible consequences of their involvement, which could affect the ability of ministries to recruit needed volunteers.

Like anyone, Vongjaroenrat can't say for certain if the bill will pass in its present form. Although the details of specific sections are "problematic," she said there are signs of hope the version that passes might be more comprehensive and less enforcement-heavy.

Vongjaroenrat said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threatened March 15 to introduce his own version of an immigration bill because deliberations of the Senate Judiciary Committee were showing a great deal of disagreement. Frist's bill is rumored to be more enforcement-only and contain many of HR 4437's provisions, according to Vongjaroenrat.

"However, there are also positive developments in the committee," she said. "On Thursday (March 16), the judiciary committee discussed what to do with 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and there appears to be some slight leaning toward incorporating some of the McCain-Kennedy provisions on this issue. This development apparently has given Senator Frist a pause with regard to jumping the gun and introducing his own version." 

Additionally, Vongjaroenrat said there is some indication within advocate circles that "the average American has been calling committee members and urging them to take a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform." 

Horman agrees it's hard to predict what will happen and passage is likely, although she feels it's possible the wording will be made more palatable and the work of the JFON clinics in particular might not be affected. "My personal feeling is legal advice is not and could not be prohibited under the Constitution and this law," she said.

ARCADIA — The homes of migrant workers in the Arcadia area were severely damaged in 2005 during Hurricane Charley. Trinty United Methodist Church and other churches and groups provided food, supplies and clothing to help meet their needs, a form of assistance that could be considered in violation of immigration law depending on how the  immigration bill HR 4437 up for vote in the Senate is interpreted if passed. Photo by Michael Wacht, Photo #06-0323.

Both agree the situation is cause for concern, especially if the bill passes as is. "It will be a sad day for the country and the church," Horman said.

If the bill does pass with the word assist intact, Horman advises churches with ministries of hospitality to see how the law "speaks to those ministries," then make a decision about whether or not to continue them. "Everyone should seek good, knowledgeable legal advice so they know what they're dealing with," she said.

She also said churches should challenge the law. "All church ministries should not shut down, but should challenge the bill in court. It should face some court challenges regarding its constitutionality and infringement on practicing religion."

Vongjaroenrat says Frist wants a vote by March 27.


This article relates to Outreach Ministries and Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.