SBTC Annual Meeting 2019

Texans debate how to ‘welcome the stranger’

August 20th, 2019 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Texans debate how to ‘welcome the stranger’

AUSTIN—Representatives from religious, business and law enforcement gathered in Austin Aug. 15 to discuss the impact of immigration on the U.S. economy, culture and communities. Sponsored by the pro-immigration non-profit group National Immigration Forum, the speakers avoided political rhetoric, for the most part, and focused on the long-overdue need for immigration reform in our nation.

Most speakers failed to make a distinction between people residing in the U.S. legally or illegally and gave only a little practical guidance on how individuals and churches can seek to aid in the assimilation of newcomers into their communities regardless of their immigration status. But secular and Christian leaders agreed that recognizing the fundamental dignity of all people should be foundational to the immigration debate.

Austin Stone Community Church hosted the event which drew about 60 people.

Some Christians cite a moral tension between the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger” to abide by the law. So, people don’t do anything, said David Smith, director of the Austin Baptist Association.

“If you can’t figure that out, you still have a fundamental responsibility before God to love your neighbor. So, you’ve got to go and do that,” Smith reminded.

Christians stuck in that moral paradox “soften” their views on immigration once they begin living out that biblical mandate. The faith community needs to take the lead on the immigration debate despite division in the church over topic, Smith said.

Local law enforcement must work within that tension as well. Keeping the peace in their communities – which include illegal immigrant residents – doesn’t mean ignoring federal immigration law, but rather,  prioritizing local law and safety, said Andy Harvey, police chief of Palestine, Texas, and a member of the Immigration Forum.

Creating a safe environment for his East Texas town requires that all residents, regardless of their immigration status, feel safe, he explained. Fear of reprisals for being in the country illegally often prevents people from reporting crimes to the police which makes their neighborhoods less safe.

And there are many people who entered or have stayed in the country illegally who want to rectify the situation, but current policies give few options, he argued. Leaving the country and waiting years to apply legally for entry is not a viable option for people with children who are American citizens, according to the chief.

So, they stay.

Resistance to all forms of immigration has disturbing roots said Tim Moore, an SBC pastor and spokesman for the Evangelical Immigration Table. Population studies indicate the U.S. soon will be a minority-majority nation.

Whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the U.S. population by 2045, according to a March 2018 U.S. census report.  Hispanics will make up 24.6 percent of the population, while Blacks and Asians will represent 13.1 and 7.9, respectively.

Immigration and birth rates indicate Texas will be majority Hispanic by 2030, according to the Texas Demographic Center.

“Nativist” ideology among some white Americans who make their views known to their state and federal legislators poisons attempts to reconcile the two sides of the debate, according to Moore, in arguing for change. They claim that some conversations in churches and with legislators project a fear of cultural changes driven by immigration, he said.

“What’s our problem? Can America be America if the Anglos don’t rule? That’s the issue,” he insisted.

The EIT represents a collaboration of evangelicals seeking government reform of outdated immigration policies. Its six-point policy objective calls on Congress to end the decades-long stalemate.

“It’s illegal to break the law,” Moore said, referring to illegal immigration. “But it is equally immoral not to enforce the law for decades and then decide to retroactively begin to enforce the law. That’s unconscionable in America.”

Signatories to the EIT statement include some Southern Baptist entities and several prominent Southern Baptist pastors.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle were the objects of criticism from conference speakers. Both  Republicans and Democrats use it as a wedge issue, some speakers contended, adding that resolving the issue removes ammunition from their rhetorical arsenal.

The National Immigration Forum supports legislation allowing people to stay in the country legally while also expediting the means of entry for people of all skill levels. Some participants criticized the Trump administration’s emphasize on legal immigration for people with degrees and high-tech skill sets, claiming he is ignoring the need for workers in the labor industry.

But Moore expects the status quo will stand.

Travis Wussow of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission countered with a strong reason for hope. His work on Capitol Hill advocating for policies SBC messengers have supported by way of resolutions in annual meetings has involved him in discussions with a bipartisan group of legislators determined to solve the problem.

Wussow, ERLC’s vice president for public policy and general counsel, recalled hearing one legislator who began a meeting saying, “‘Look, there’s 11 million people in this country illegally. We’re not going to deport all of them. So, what are we going to do about it?’”

The frankness of the question took Wussow by surprise. And the candor gave him hope. Because the talks are in the preliminary stage he did not want to name those involved. But, he said, the person leading the debate is a Southern Baptist who is letting Scripture determine “what is right and just.”

And Wussow knows Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin as well as the School of Law, he previously served on the staff of an SBTC church before joining the ERLC.

The proposals being considered address both sides of the moral paradigm, he said. It creates punitive civil penalties against those who entered and stayed in the country illegally while creating a means of legalization – not citizenship – for those same people.

For now, just gaining traction is an answer to prayer for the Texas crowd who made the trip to Austin for six hours of dialogue.