With new and controversial anti-immigrant laws in Georgia and Alabama under scrutiny, the Southern Baptist Convention could not have picked a better time to stand up for an immigration reform bill that provides a path to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants. The church's unexpected position injects a sorely needed voice of humane compassion into a debate that has become more myopic, mean-spirited and divisive than ever.
The resolution on immigration reform that passed at the annual Southern Baptist assembly last week came, appropriately, in Arizona, the state which adopted an anti-immigrant bill that has become a model for more than a dozen me-too states, mostly in the South and Midwest.
An Associated Press account of the resolution said it called on ministers and members of the church to extend their ministry to all people, and to reject bigotry, repression and harassment of immigrants, regardless of their country of origin.
"I think Southern Baptists understand it's just not politically viable to send an estimated 12-to-15 million undocumented immigrants back," the AP report quoted the Rev. Paul Jimenez as saying. "It's not humane, either."
The Baptist assembly, to be sure, did not come to that point unanimously. It passed on a divided vote of 766-723. It was appropriately followed by resolutions calling on government to make border security a priority, and to hold businesses accountable for verifying the legal residency of job seekers. Those are, in fact, the key elements of a workable plan.
The federal government's efforts at securing the border rose under President George W. Bush and have expanded significantly under President Obama. The Obama administration, in fact, has pumped vast resources and personnel into border security, which now features both hard fencing and/or electronic measures - radar, ground-pressure monitors and cameras - in virtually every sector of the southwest border with Mexico.
The administration has also broadened enforcement of employment verification through concentrated programs directed both at businesses and workers.
An uninformed public view of border-security progress and visa verification systems, however, lingers across both political parties. Republicans and Democrats alike are now afraid to embark on an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with good work records for two core reasons. Republicans fear blowback from businesses that want cheap illegal labor. Democrats fear being misunderstood by voters who fear immigration reform will spur more illegal border crossings.
Getting past those obstacles will take courage, political leadership and a more enlightened public view of the value and necessity of giving qualified immigrants an opportunity to earn citizenship. The Southern Baptists could offer further help with public education, and intensive prayer.