Inter-faith leaders speak out on US immigration bill

(Photo: Reuters / Mike Blake)The t-shirt of an immigrant supporter is seen as families, workers and supporters rally in front of the Federal building downtown to protest the United States Department of Homeland Security I-9 audits of their employment eligibility in San Diego, California April 26, 2013. The demonstrators want the audits on a group of janitors put on hold until an immigration reform bill is passed by the federal government.

Many religious leaders expressed support and concerns over the culturally significant U.S. immigration bill and its amendments when debate began.

Crafted by a group of U.S. senators from cutting across congressional party lines, called the Gang of Eight, four Democrats and four Republicans, the bill is the culmination of months of cooperation.

It is intended to close the cavernous gap between the ideological strands of both parties and the debate that begins Monday is expected to be intense.

Debate only started Thursday in the Judiciary Committee on the 844-page legislation, but the political and religious ramifications are already being felt.

Church World Service, an ecumenical group, has joined other faith leaders in vocal support of the immigration bill intended to improve the lives of millions of undocumented people in the U.S.

"[As the Senate begins] considering amendments to the bipartisan immigration reform bill, Church World Service urges them to protect provisions that would improve the lives of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people," said CWS president and CEO John McCullough.

"Throughout the CWS network of congregations and refugee resettlement offices, we know first-hand the importance of these provisions.

"It is our deep hope that immigration reform upholds the United States' proud history of protecting and welcoming survivors of persecution," McCullough continued.

Other faith figures are speaking out alongside numerous Christians in support of the legislation, including Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in New York.

For the rabbi, the U.S. and Jewish faith have a tradition of welcoming and protecting the disenfranchised.

He says that this too should extend to those who flee their homelands to escape tyranny.

"Judaism demands that we treat all people as if they are made in God's image, which means we must treat them well," Gutow said. "How can we possibly ill treat those who are oppressed or living under the yoke of tyranny?"

Known by its full name as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, the opening debate on the immigration bill was seen as relatively measured in the Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Instead of plowing through amendments, Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) began by walking through Republican proposed changes to the bill.

In an attempt to create the image of bipartisanship, the Democrats even passed eight Republican amendments, primarily to do with border security, even if they were submitted by some of the bill's most toughest opponents.

Two of the bill's GOP framers, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), sit among the eight total Republicans in the committee (there are 10 Democrats).

Other amendments that failed included more punitive additions, such as the proposal by Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would forbid immigrants from visiting their home countries during the 10-year provisional waiting period for citizenship.

However, not all upcoming controversial amendments are from the Republican side of the aisle.

Committee chair Leahy came under fire Wednesday for offering several amendments that would strengthen the legitimacy and rights of same-sex couples.

The Vermont senator would have the U.S. government recognize the rights of same-sex marriages if one spouse is American and the other an immigrant. He would also recognize U.S. citizens who want to sponsor their immigrated same-sex partner for a green card.

"For immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, it must include protections for all families," Leahy said. "We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law."

The political ramifications those upcoming amendments could mean for the bill may be severe.

Many conservative leaders, even those in support of immigration reform, consider these amendments, which would allow even same-sex partners in states without gay marriage to qualify for green cards, to be too radical.

"This immigration bill is difficult enough as it is," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) of such a measure on a conservative talk radio show last month. "If you inject something like this in the bill, it will die. The coalition behind it will fall apart."

Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, has since promised that if Leahy's amendments are passed that he will withdraw his support for the legislation.

Left-leaning evangelical leader Jim Wallace has also cautioned against such a provocative measure.

Wallace, a supporter of same-sex marriage and CEO of Sojourners, said that an extreme measure like this could derail the whole endeavor while speaking at a press call with leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table.

"I support equal protection under the law but I think this is the wrong place in the wrong time to try and resolve this contentious issue," Wallace said.

"This must be a bipartisan bill. Our focus must be on the 11 million undocumented and vulnerable people who this is their time, their chance, this is their moment."

The amendments in question are still on the docket for debate this week.

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