Bishops oppose immigration bill in Mississippi

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON – Leaders from four Christian denominations are calling on Mississippi lawmakers to reject an Arizona-style immigration bill that would let officers check during traffic stops to see if a person is in the country illegally.

Bishops from the Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran and United Methodist churches in Mississippi said Friday that residents must be willing to forgive immigrants who enter the United States without permission.

In an open letter to legislators and Gov. Haley Barbour, the bishops said the U.S. immigration system is “broken and outdated,” but should be reformed by the federal government, not by states.

“Comprehensive immigration reform that secures our borders, guarantees fair and effective worksite enforcement, strengthens our economy and provides a means for earned legalization would honor the values of human dignity, family unity, and mercy and forgiveness that our faith traditions demand of us,” the bishops wrote in the letter, which was also released to news organizations.

The letter was signed by Bishop Joseph N. Latino of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson; Bishop Roger P. Morin of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi; Bishop Duncan M. Gray III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi; Bishop H. Julian Gordy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Southeastern Synod; and Bishop Hope Ward Morgan of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“It is my most fervent hope that what appears to be a fear-based, politically motivated approach to the challenges of immigration will have no place in our churches,” Gray said in a news release that accompanied the letter. “This is not who we are. This is not who we are called to be. Our Lord’s words — ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,’ makes no reference to immigration papers.”

The Mississippi House and Senate have passed different versions of an immigration bill that would allow law enforcement officers to check a person’s immigration status during a traffic stop, if the officer thinks the person might be in the United States illegally. Lawmakers say an officer would have reason to check, for example, if a person is unable to speak English clearly.

Negotiators have been appointed to work on a final version of the bill, but it’s unclear whether they’ll reach a compromise before the legislative session ends in early April.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said Friday he appreciates the religious sentiments behind the bishops’ letter. But he said legislators have to consider public policy issues from a legal perspective.

“While my personal faith certainly directs me in many of my positions on legal issues, in this case I believe if you entered the country illegally you are in violation of federal law and therefore are a law breaker,” Fillingane, who is Southern Baptist, told The Associated Press. “I believe the Scripture is very clear that one should respect the laws of the land — ‘Render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s.’

“I do appreciate their position,” Fillingane said. “I just respectfully disagree with it.”

Immigration enforcement is a top issue this year for Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s courting tea party voters as he runs for governor.

“Despite being criticized by some who have turned a blind eye to the problem of illegal immigration, Lt. Governor Bryant will not be deterred from openly discussing the problem and offering solutions to address it,” Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said Friday in response to the bishops’ letter. Bryant is Methodist.

Barbour, who is Presbyterian, can’t seek re-election this year but is considering a 2012 presidential run. He said in December that he sees no problem with officers checking immigration status, but he acknowledged that some people who worked on Mississippi’s Hurricane Katrina recovery might have been in the U.S. illegally.

The Senate version would’ve allowed people to sue cities, counties or law enforcement officers for allegedly failing to enforce immigration laws. Local officials said such lawsuits could break their budgets.

The House version removes the lawsuits against local government or law enforcement, but would allow suits against employers. Those found hiring illegal immigrants could face fines of $5,000 to $25,000 a day and could lose state contracts. Fillingane has called the House changes “crazy.”

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The bill is Senate Bill 2179.