Defining immigration

Politics: Evangelical leaders want to come to terms with differences over guest workers and amnesty | John Dawson

Richard Land bristles when he hears people label a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants as amnesty. "Having to pay back taxes and undergo a background check and learning English," said Mr. Land, president of the Southern Baptists Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "That's not amnesty. Having to wait six years before you can apply for permanent status is not amnesty."

Mr. Land supports President George W. Bush and a bipartisan consensus of U.S. senators who are calling for a guest-worker program designed to bring many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out from the shadows and into American society. Mr. Land says his support of a guest-worker program, which has been decried as a form of amnesty by conservative opponents like Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, is based on pragmatism: "The political reality is that we're not going to round up 12 million people and send them back home."

Throughout the country, conservative evangelical Christians are suddenly sounding off in the nation's immigration debate. More than 80 percent of respondents to an unscientific web survey on the Family Research Council's website advocated building a border fence and deploying United States armed forces to the border to halt the flow of illegal immigration from Latin America. The high level of interest from religious conservatives doesn't surprise leaders, who say immigrant protests have touched a nerve with everyday folk who are trying to balance anger at a government unable or unwilling to enforce the rule of law and the Old and New Testament mandate to meet the needs of the alien.

Meanwhile, Washington lawmakers say massive immigrant-rights protests on May 1 may not have worked as organizers planned. "I don't think we got any votes as a result of the protests,' Florida Republican and Senate compromise supporter Mel Martinez told the Bloomberg news service. "The message ought to be a pro-American message and I'm not sure that's what I saw."

According to police, the nationwide rally and boycott of work drew 400,000 in Chicago, 300,000 in Los Angeles, and 200,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The number of protesters exceeded expectations in some areas (like Chicago where a March protest drew 100,000), but in other cities that had large-scale protests earlier in March or April, numbers were way down. Protesters in Dallas were fervently waving American flags (with a few Mexican flags peppered in) on May 1, but only 1,500 showed up compared to the 350,000 to 500,000 who showed up for the April 9 demonstration.

The downturn in support disappointed rally organizers and surprised media pundits who predicted the boycott would cause serious problems. In most cities, migrants simply went about their work.

Legislation on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, seems to be stuck. The House passed an enforcement-only immigration reform bill in December that led to the massive Latino protests in April. And while leaders of both parties in the Senate support an enforcement bill that would also include provisions for a guest-worker program, the bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) faces opposition from both sides that so far has stalled it.

While the Senate seems at an impasse, some states are moving ahead with their own immigration proposals. In Arizona, the state House of Representatives passed its own measure, which would punish with fines companies that hire illegal immigrants. Other state lawmakers have proposed building an 80-mile fence along the state's southern border and requiring all law enforcement to check the citizenship status of all people pulled over for traffic violations.

Nebraska has taken a different approach. Instead of bolstering provisions against illegal immigration, the state's lawmakers reversed a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would provide scholarship money for the children of illegal immigrants to attend in-state universities.

The states' approaches reflect the various angles both politicians and the public are using to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States and the millions more who may enter in the near future if the southern border remains porous. Mr. Land said extreme viewpoints on immigration are gaining the media's attention, but not aiding in hammering out a feasible plan.

"There are people running around saying that we've got to seal our borders and arrest all 12 million illegal aliens and send them home—to keep America for the Americans," Mr. Land said. "And then on the other side you basically have people who want open borders and they say if you don't agree with that, you're a bigot. I think both positions are untenable. And I think both positions tend to appeal to the emotions rather than to the rational part of the brain."

That was the argument Mr. Land brought to a Family Research Council forum on immigration on April 27 also attended by Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Joan Maruskin, an immigration expert from the Church World Service, and Hudson Institute fellow John O'Sullivan.

Mr. Land warned against transforming immigration from a real issue that affects real people into a political football that would be used by both parties to bolster their 2006 electoral hopes. "When [Colorado Rep. Tom] Tancredo says we've got to stop this illegal invasion and send them all back, in my opinion, he's just playing politics," he said. "For people to advocate simply for open borders and full amnesty, that's just shameful demagoguery. There are Democrats and Republicans engaging in this and we deserve better."

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said that many media outlets are fostering an environment that incubates extreme positions. He says the Mexican flags he saw on television don't match the sentiments of Hispanic workers and business owners he met with in the Southwest earlier this year.

"In many ways, the media has brought out polarization on this. I think the media goes for the extremes," Mr. Perkins said. "This is a problem that we need to get right. The best way to decide it is not by what you see on television or hear on talk radio. We have to drill down deeper on this."