Alabama's strict immigration law doesn't take effect until September 1, but pastor Carlos Aybar saw fear spread around suburban Huntsville as soon as Governor Robert Bentley signed it in June.
"Everyone was feeling the same thing—confusion, fear, and desperation," said Aybar, pastor of Restoration Foursquare Church's Spanish-speaking mission in Madison. "Everyone is affected, but mostly the teenagers and kids who were raised here and feel this is their country—their home."
The most controversial provision prohibits knowingly offering rides to undocumented residents; others place restrictions on hiring or renting property to them.
"It will definitely affect the Hispanic church," said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "They will be fearful of even using vans to pick up [church] members—many of whom can't afford their own cars and depend on the church for transportation."
"We call it the 'Clergy Criminalization Act,'" said Luis Cortes, Jr., president of the Philadelphia-based Esperanza network. "This is going to punish anyone who is a humanitarian and force Christians to break the law. I'm shocked the church didn't speak against it."
In its aftermath, many did. More than 150 ministers in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church signed an open letter decrying it. At its annual meeting in mid-June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) adopted a resolution advocating ministry to everyone regardless of immigration status (while also calling for border security and holding businesses accountable in hiring).
Alabama's law followed on the heels of a measure adopted in April by Georgia. These laws were part of a wave of 1,500 immigrant-related bills and resolutions proposed during the first quarter of 2011. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that is up 30 percent over last year.
States that place tighter controls on immigrants may face unintended consequences. Arizona missionary Fernando Amaro said membership in the SBC's Phoenix-area Hispanic congregations plunged 12 percent in five months after the state passed its controversial immigration law last year. Even though implementation has been delayed by a federal court challenge, Amaro said fear inhibits many Hispanics from attending church.
"The damage to ministry basically comes little by little in the financial area," Amaro said. "If you lose income, budgets are not as they're supposed to be."
Despite the objections, one Alabama legislator elected last year on the strength of advocating Arizona-style legislation believes much of the criticism is based on speculation and over-reaction.
Republican Mac Buttram of Cullman thinks many pastors are misreading the bill's wording and intent. He said it does not require humanitarian workers to determine anyone's status.
"The operative word in all of this is 'illegal,'" said Buttram, a retired United Methodist minister. "If people are here illegally, then we need to deal with that in a way that people either become legal … or go back to the country of their origin."
Whether the law will take effect remains in doubt. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, have filed a class-action lawsuit. In addition, a legal expert believes it could run afoul of a state religious-freedom amendment adopted in 1999, as well as conflict with federal law.
"Immigration is a federal matter, and state law may be pre-empted," said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor. "That's the argument in the Arizona case, and it may be the most favorable argument [here]."
Regardless of court maneuverings, United Methodist bishop William Willimon thinks ministries will continue aiding others.
"Our Spanish people need help," said the North Alabama Conference leader. "It's like [Peter said] in Acts: 'We must obey God rather than men.'"
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Update (May 1, 2013): Al.com reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has "declined to hear Alabama's appeal of a ruling [on key sections of Alabama's immigration law] by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals." Bishops from a range of denomination filed suit against enforcement of the immigration law two years ago.
HB 56, Alabama's new immigration bill, can be found here.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of immigration includes:
Immigration Reform: Another Christian View | Forging a just public policy is more complex than the public rhetoric. (July 13, 2010)
Arizona's Border Crisis | Why Christians should oppose the state's new immigration law. (May 12, 2010)
Evangelicals Endorse Immigration Reform | The National Association of Evangelicals' board overwhelmingly approved a resolution to seek 'faith and equal treatment' of immigrants. (October 9, 2009)
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