The Common Good

Alabama Pastor's Take on Latest Anti-Immigrant Legislation

From the first wave of European explorers to the present, white America has believed in its own entitlement. 

Photo by Kathryn Kendrick, Greater Birmingham Ministries
HB 658 protest at the Alabama state house. Photo by Kathryn Kendrick, Greater Birmingham Ministries

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As our European immigrant forefathers began to settle this land, they took what they could not buy, exploited those that trusted, killed who they could not tame and purchased other people to work the land.

Vicious cycles have occurred throughout U.S. history. First, indentured servants and African slaves were brought to this place, purchased like cattle to work the land and serve the privileged. Meanwhile, the genocide of Native Americans meant more land to develop. After African Americans were freed from slavery, laws were created to keep them at bay, and the remaining Native Americans were confined to reservations.

The Chinese were encouraged to come to America because their labor was needed to build the railroads. But after the great expansion of railroads was completed, they were loathed, and laws were created to keep their wives and families from coming here. 

And so it goes, with wide eyes and hope, the Irish came and were despised, the Italians came and were not trusted and the Japanese came and were incarcerated.

Here we are today, caught in an economic slump, finding ways to once again dehumanize those that we encouraged to come. The very people who have harvested our food, built our homes and served us over the past 30-plus years, we now declare criminals.

In my beloved Alabama, where 3 percent of the population (largely Hispanic) is estimated to be undocumented, our state government has created the harshest and most egregious anti-immigrant laws in the country. Rep. Micky Hammon and Sen. Scott Beason, sponsors and writers of HB56, stated that these laws would create an atmosphere of “self deportation.” I can only wonder how Native Americans might feel about that concept.

HB56 — passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley in June 2011 — has now been replaced by HB658. The stated purpose of the new legislation was to simplify HB56 and make enforcement less complicated. In the process, stricter guidelines and harsher treatment were incorporated while simplification was ignored.

I am compelled to look at this law as a child of God within the Christian faith, accepting that all people in this world are my brothers and sisters, created by the God who breathed life into me and into them, making us one family.

As I read this law, it became abundantly clear it was created out of fear and loathing for the sojourners among us. During the legislative process this year, people in the faith community were repeatedly told that a Good Samaritan clause would be added. The legislature not only failed to include but also voted down the amendment to exempt churches from the harboring provision. As the law stands, people of faith are forced to choose between honoring Alabama law and honoring the commandments of God. Are we not commanded by Jesus to feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty and invite the stranger in? In Alabama, churches and other nonprofit humanitarian organizations that do this could well find their doors closed and themselves in prison.

Often churches send out buses, vans and cars to bring people to worship, to their food pantries or clothes closets — maybe even to take them to a doctor. Never have we asked for someone’s papers before picking them up. Yet, today, in Alabama it is a felony if one is caught “knowingly” transporting five or more unlawfully present immigrants. In a state with elected judges, how are we to define “knowingly?”

As a board member of Greater Birmingham Ministries I acknowledge with great pleasure that we offer food and clothing to those in need as well as financial assistance with rent, electricity, water, medical and other needs as we are able — without asking for papers. In April alone, 209 families, including 210 children, were served. Some of those served were most likely undocumented people. Are we guilty of “knowingly” harboring while we love God and honor His commandments?

Unfortunately, we must acknowledge the 800-plus additional calls each month that we do not have the resources to respond to. How much will that number grow? HB658 as its predecessor HB56 makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to seek work, ignoring that many have legally documented U.S. children to support.

Understand this: HB658 requires the separation of families. HB658 makes it unlawful for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants, thereby threatening to render homeless not only undocumented individuals, but their spouses and children, including U.S. citizen children. It makes immigration officers of school administrators and teachers by requiring schools to check the immigration status of schoolchildren and their parents. It requires the Department of Homeland Security in Alabama to post the names and counties of all unlawfully present immigrants brought into court for any violation of state law. To what purpose I ask?

As one who loves God and obeys his commandments I cannot make criminals of children. Did Jesus not tell his Disciples to leave the children alone and let them come to him? 

How can I not respond when Jesus answers us: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

And yet, I understand Hammon and Beason in the creation of their hate- filled HB56 and HB658. Hating is easy; it only requires one to be self- serving. Loving is difficult; it requires one to serve others.     

 

Tommy Morgan is pastor of Grace Christian Church in Helena, Ala.

 

 

 

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