Church Workers & the Law

The Christian Century, June 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Church Workers & the Law


WHEN GOVERNOR JAN BREWER of Arizona in late April signed a bill authorizing local police to apprehend people suspected of having entered the country illegally, she brought to national attention the tensions and frustrations that many Arizonans feel when it comes to immigration. These tensions are evident in congregations, which contain a wide range of opinions on immigration policy. The tensions are also acutely felt in congregations that work closely with immigrants and in those that are made up of immigrants.

United Methodists constitute one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the state, with about 35,000 members, and they offer a window on church responses to the new law. One of the most vocal critics of the law has been the United Methodist bishop of the Desert Southwest Conference, Minerva Carcano. For her, the immigration debate is about justice, and the Christian responsibility is clear: to welcome the stranger, care for those in need and provide hospitality to neighbors. The arrival of undocumented immigrants, as she sees it, is the product of a long history of unjust economic practices. To blame people in poverty for seeking to get out of poverty reflects the distorted perspective of the privileged class.

Jim Perdue, who works on immigration and border issues for the United Methodist Church, is glad that his church has taken such a strong stance on the law and on immigration policy. The proper role of the church, Perdue says, is to stand with those who are suffering. "We come to this from the posture that Christ is incarnate in the people who are suffering. That's where the church is and where the church should be."

About Arizona SB 1070, the recently passed immigration law, Perdue is unequivocal. "I might be hesitant to use the words 'persecution' and 'oppression' for the effect of this law, if there weren't such a strong intent, articulated in the bill, to persecute people in the original meaning of the word, which is to 'pursue.' The bill clearly states that its intent is to chase people out of the state of Arizona, to make sure that they are not comfortable here, that they are not welcome."

On the first Sunday after the passage of the bill, Perdue was scheduled to preach at a largely Hispanic congregation in the Phoenix area. Normal attendance on a Sunday had been around 70, but on this particular Sunday fewer than 20 came. "People are afraid to come out," Perdue said. "They are not sure they are safe."

Those involved in ministries with immigrants are not sure what the new law means. The law makes it illegal to "transport . . . conceal, harbor or shield" undocumented people--and church workers do these things all the time. They drive people to doctors' appointments and to church or Sunday school and never inquire about someone's immigration status. Under the law, it appears they could be charged $1,000 per person for transporting an undocumented person. The law makes certain exemptions for workers in child protective services and for emergency aid workers, said Perdue, but it's not clear if church workers would fall into this category.

While the law was amended to clarify that police can investigate the legal status of a resident only in the course of investigating a possible violation of another law, such as smuggling or drug running, uncertainty about how the law will be implemented has created an atmosphere of fear.

"Fear on all sides is rampant," says Pastor Andrea Andress, director of children and family ministries at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, the largest and wealthiest United Methodist church in the area. In Andress's congregation, some members are withholding their donations to the church because they object to the strong stance that Bishop Carcano has taken. …

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