Faith & Fairness: Religious leaders call for humane approach

Ben Hernandez, 24, and his mother, Josie Silvagnoli-Acosta, both American citizens from Puerto Rico, are getting fed up with local police who stop and question him. Hernandez said he’s been detained by police more than a dozen times in the past three years.

Each time her son, Ben Hernandez, walks out the door, Josie Silvagnoli-Acosta worries.

"Make sure you have your wallet; make sure you have your ID," she tells him.

Hernandez has never been in trouble with the law. The 24-year-old West Ashley High School graduate attended two years of college in New York City and works at an area restaurant.

Born in Puerto Rico, he has lived in the U.S. since he was 4 and barely speaks Spanish. The family has been living in Charleston for 10 years. All are citizens.

But Hernandez often is stopped by police, and the family thinks it's probably because he looks Hispanic, his mother said.

On one occasion, officers were looking for someone in the area of their West Ashley apartment complex, saw Hernandez, handcuffed him, read him his Miranda rights and detained him in the back of a police cruiser for two hours until the perpetrator was found, according to Silvagnoli-Acosta and her son.

Once, he was stopped during a routine neighborhood walk, Hernandez said. Once he was stopped, with no reason provided, he said, after pulling out of his employer's parking lot. He said he's been detained by police in various jurisdictions at least a dozen times in the past three years.

Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis said the stops were meant to gather information and "had nothing to do with his race." They were a routine part of officer patrols in an area where suspicious activity had been reported or a vehicle matched a crime victim's description, Francis said.

Profiling is a breach of law enforcement's code of conduct. It is not supposed to happen. But if South Carolina's new immigration law is upheld by a federal judge next week, Silvagnoli-Acosta will have more reason to worry, she said.

"It is going to get worse, because now they will have the legal right to do it."

Stranger's advocate

The problem of racial profiling and other concerns over the state's immigration policy have prompted religious leaders to call for a humane solution to what seems to be an intractable national problem.

Since 1991, LARCUM, an ecumenical group of South Carolina bishops representing the Lutheran Synod, two Episcopal dioceses, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston and the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, has been meeting to discuss matters theological, ecumenical, ecclesiastical and practical.

Lately, the conversation has shifted to the issue of illegal immigration. These leaders are promoting dialogue and reconciliation and citing the Bible repeatedly.

South Carolina's newly amended immigration statute is slated to take effect Jan. 1. It penalizes employers for failing to verify workers' legal status, and it permits law enforcement officials with "reasonable suspicion" to check the immigration status of anyone they stop.

On Dec. 19, a federal judge in Charleston will hear arguments against the new law. A complaint was filed Oct. 12 by the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of civil rights groups and individuals, arguing that the law is unconstitutional, invites racial profiling and interferes with federal authority.

Among Hispanics, anxiety has taken hold, religious leaders and other advocates of national legal reform say. Many Hispanics have fled their communities; others live in fear of deportation.

Abraham went to Egypt, Moses named a son Gershon ("foreigner"), Jacob's sons immigrated to distant lands, Jesus Christ was a refugee, "and did not God deport Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?" said the Rev. Rich Robinson, minister of Epworth United Methodist Church on James Island. "So this isn't a new problem, it's a human condition."

The Hebrew Bible speaks about caring for the stranger 36 times, more than any other commandment, notes Gideon Aronoff, director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

And every religion holds dear the idea that people are defined by more than their nationality or ethnicity.

"These are our brothers and sisters," said the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. "Even though they may not be American citizens, nevertheless they are fellow Catholics. So we have a real obligation to help them in this situation."

And help does not arrive in the form of strict local laws that have the potential to disrupt the U.S. economy, break up families, overburden the justice system and foster international hostility, these religious leaders said.

"One of the classic elements of the immigration debate today is the unanimity amongst faith communities that the immigration laws are broken, that they have to be fixed and that the sanctity and humanity of each person has to be respected," Aronoff said.

A religious test

Robinson hopes the debate eventually can bring people together.

"One consequence (of the debate) is a distancing from people," he said. "And once there is distance, it's easier to objectify them, and that leads to a form of dehumanization."

Soon, those who are perceived as different are categorized as "other" and demonized, he said. "That really scares me."

What's needed is sympathy and understanding, Robinson said.

"Once you get people together and get to know them, it's hard to hate or objectify. 'Illegal' becomes 'My friend Jose.' "

Labeling people "illegal," even those who broke the law to enter the U.S., runs contrary to Christian doctrine, Robinson said. The Bible doesn't qualify its message. "It doesn't say the word of God and the love of God are freely given except where prohibited by state law," he said.

Guglielmone said he understands the desperation of states impatient to enact immigration reforms and waiting for a solution from Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, he said, the consequences of state laws such as South Carolina's are likely to make the problem worse by causing "lots of collateral damage."

At stake is the sanctity of the family and the well-being of the economy, he said. The law could cause an increase in deportations, compromising both.

"In this case, my concern is for those left in the U.S.," Guglielmone said. "Many children are born here and are citizens. Spouses are citizens. So what we're talking about here is families that can be decimated by this."

The issue is complex, and the church is not proposing to solve it, Guglielmone said. But any answer must balance national security with the individual's dignity. It must be "realistic, effective and just."

'A Jewish calling'

Aronoff, who visited the College of Charleston last week, said his organization's position on illegal immigration is rooted in long-held Jewish values and interests. Historically, the U.S.-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been dedicated to helping Jewish refugees from around the world, but in recent years, it has turned its attention to immigration issues at home.

"We see a Jewish calling to promote policies that treat all immigrants based on the notion that each of us, each person, is created in the image of God -- tzelem elohim," Aronoff said.

Calling state solutions to the immigration problem unworkable, he said a national strategy that acknowledges the difficulties is badly needed.

"I think the notion that, at the federal government level and, sadly, in many of the states, you can either deport approximately 11 million people or scare them to leave the country is irresponsible fantasy thinking," Aronoff said. "These people are part of our communities."

They are deeply woven into the economy and often come from countries wracked with poverty or burdened with bad governments.

"To force people to return to grinding poverty is irresponsible fantasy thinking from a policy side; from a human and religious side, it's stigmatizing and harassing people who are here to try to make a better life for themselves and their families, or even to survive," he said.

While the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society does not condone illegal border crossings, "our opposition to illegal immigration doesn't cloud either our moral compass or our political judgment of what's in our country's best interest," Aronoff said.

"We reject the notion that our moral values and national interest are in conflict -- they're not."

'Advocates for change'

Most mainline religious organizations have issued public statements on the topic of illegal immigration, and all share in common a plea for federal action, humane treatment, a path to citizenship and allegiance to biblical principles concerning "the stranger."

The Rev. Dr. Herman R. Yoos, bishop of the S.C. Lutheran Synod, said humanitarian concerns prompted him to speak out on the issue of illegal immigration.

The difficulties are profound, and hard decisions have to be made, he said. "We don't want to inflame the situation and feed the anger, but we would like to be advocates for change" that is fair, just and humane. "I like to think we can appeal to folks on both sides of this issue."

Yoos said Lutherans in South Carolina have an obligation to serve two growing Latino mission congregations.

"We have people afraid to drive to church Sunday morning," he said. "It's the human face of lives that are being literally ripped apart by a system and by laws that, in my opinion, target a group of people. If there were a fair, reasonable way for these people to apply for citizenship, they would have done it."

Aronoff said current U.S. law permits the issuance of just 5,000 visas for low-skilled migrant workers annually. There is no correlation between the number of visas and the number of jobs typically filled by migrant workers, he said.

The idea that foreign laborers should "get in the back of the line" is absurd, he said. "There is no line to get into."

"So we have to address backlogs in family immigration, effective immigration enforcement at the borders and in the interior to prevent bad actors (employers, smugglers, forgers) from gaming the new system," Aronoff said.

"Finally, we can't just have an immigration policy; we need to have an integration policy that provides assistance to newcomers to join the experiment that is the United States of America."

Moral excess

Silvagnoli-Acosta said South Carolina's immigration law is untenable and unfair.

"South Carolina always said it doesn't have enough money for this or for that," she said. "I understand that. But they're going to have to get more police officers to enforce this law. Where is the money going to come from? I don't want my tax dollars to go to this. I don't want to live in fear."

She said such laws propose to address the violations committed by illegal immigrants with moral and ethical excesses for which a whole society must take responsibility.

"Whichever way you want to look at it, it's a violation," she said.

Hernandez shook his head.

"There are serious issues out there, so much crime," he said. "Why are (the police) worried about unnecessary stuff?"

Episcopal bishops’ position

United Methodist Church resources

Catholic bishops’ call for reform

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s position

Southern Baptist Convention — “On Immigration and the Gospel”

South Carolina’s S.B. 20 immigration bill

Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement on South Carolina’s amended immigration law

Read the Justice Department complaint against S.C.

S.C. Immigration Coalition

South Carolina LARCUM