At a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration hearing today, a panel of conservative religious leaders made the case for common sense solutions to our immigration problems—comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) that secures our borders, follows the rule of law and provides a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. While the hearing, The Ethical Imperative for Reform of Our Immigration System, started off with ethical and biblical arguments supporting and opposing reform, it later evolved into what most immigration debates eventually boil down to—fairness, justice and the punitive aspects of a reform effort.

The majority witnesses—Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson and VP of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Dean Mathew Staver of the Liberty University School of Law—testified to the moral and biblical mandate to care for “the least of these among us,” the “strangers” who reside in our land, and to act justly and mercifully by enacting comprehensive immigration reform. Faith leaders will continue to reach out and support the undocumented population, Dr. Land said, but “only a proper government response can resolve our immigration crisis.”

“Get tough on immigration” hardliners—Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA)—however, pushed back on religious leaders by citing scripture that quote the “rule of law” and advocate the “punishing of wrongdoers.” “Americans need not repent for wanting to follow the rule of law,” Rep Smith said, “A truly Christian approach would be to end illegal immigration.” Likewise, the single witness for the minority, Dr. James R. Edwards, Jr. of the restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies, testified that biblical precepts of compassion and mercy “might not apply to civil government of the nation-state of which we are citizens. Sometimes, such application would actually be harmful and wrong.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL)—among others—took particular offense to Dr. Edwards’ distinction. Rep. Gutierrez replied, “I want my government to be a reflection of my values, don’t you?” Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) asked Dr. Edwards if our current immigration laws were just and whether deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living here was considered “justice?” Dr. Edwards replied “no” to both questions.

The underlying tension in the room, however, wasn’t whether our immigration system is broken (everyone in the room agreed on that) but in how to fix it—and a step further, what a “just punishment” might look like. While the majority of committee members and witnesses agreed on CIR as a solution, immigration restrictionists championed the Arizona SB1070 model—enforcement through attrition—that is, create enforcement laws so harsh that people choose to leave the state. Rev. Mathew Staver, Dean of Liberty University School of Law, argued that deportation wasn’t the answer and that the conservative “amnesty” scare tactic wasn’t helping anyone:

I call upon those who label an earned path to legal status as amnesty to stop politicizing this debate needlessly and to honestly acknowledge the difference.

Dr. Richard Land echoed Rev. Staver’s complaint that “amnesty” is, in fact, something very different from proposed CIR proposals.

Some critics, however, suggest that “comprehensive reform” is a code for amnesty, but such action is not amnesty because it does not merely pardon an offender. My proposal requires lawbreakers to pay a fine, learn to read, write and speak English, and follow a rigorous process for legal status. Penalties, probation, and requirements do not equal “amnesty.” Going to the back of the line behind those who have, and are trying, to come here legally is not amnesty. These are principles of justice and fairness that respect the rule of law and treat all parties involved (American citizens, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants) with dignity.

While restrictionist committee members continued to argue that CIR and its prescribed penalties—paying fines, going back to the end of the line, etc.—were simply not enough, religious leaders like Rev. Staver, continued to drive home the point that immigration is not a “right left” issue, but a “right wrong” issue, a moral issue, and that we “should not allow partisan politics to deter us from the ultimate goal of fixing a broken system.”

Photo by Lone Primate.