Local and statewide members of the group Bibles, Badges & Business for Immigration Reform, a national network of faith, law enforcement and business leaders working together to educate and support members of Congress as they consider reforms to our badly flawed immigration system, spent a lively hour with the Tribune-Herald editorial board recently. Among other things, they explained growing pressure by the evangelical movement to exact reforms based on Scripture and Christian tenets as well as common sense; how federal lawmakers’ solution of pumping more money into border patrol instead of staffing ports of entry is wrong-headed; and how immigration reform may falter for years if not passed in Congress this fall.
Meeting with the Trib: Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business; the Rev. Tim Moore, lead pastor of Walk Worthy Baptist Church, Round Rock, and legislative liaison to the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention; McAllen-based Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition’s Immigration and Border Security Committee; Patricia Wilson of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas and Waco’s Seventh & James Baptist Church; the Rev. Ramiro Peña, senior pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church, Waco; Kent McKeever of Mission Waco Legal Services; Nick Haynes of Antioch Community Church, Waco; the Rev. Jim Coston, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Waco; and Craig Nash, community pastor at University Baptist Church, Waco.
Q So what’s this movement all about?
Bill Hammond This is a coalition called Bibles, Badges & Business. We represent three different areas. We have a lot of folks here representing the Bible part of this coalition, which makes me a little nervous. (Laughter.) But all of these groups have said simply we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform. From the business perspective, we have a broken system that needs to be fixed.
At the high end of the scale, we educate these people, let them come to Baylor University and other fine institutions and get a Ph.D., then tell them they have to go home, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Makes no sense. We should be stapling a green card to their diploma because, maybe not so much at Baylor but certainly at public institutions, we’re subsidizing the cost of their education to some extent. And we desperately need them. We know when they stay, they create a lot of jobs. They create a job for themselves and create a multiplier effect.
On the lower end of the scale, primarily in agriculture, the hospitality industry and construction, you have a demand for unskilled labor. In 2006 and 2007 there were hotels and restaurants proposed that were not built because we didn’t have the supply of labor.
The American Action Network did a study published last week that shows comprehensive immigration reform would create about 230,000 jobs in Texas by 2023. That’s a substantial number for Texas. Add the fact we’ve got a lot of people fixing to retire and not a lot of people coming up from behind. So, yes, we’d like to see a system created where we secure our borders — we’re supportive of that — but we think the only way we’ll ever secure our borders is if we have enough legal immigration to meet the needs of employers.
Q I keep reading that evangelicals have really gotten involved in immigration reform this time. Why have so many in this movement been silent for so long?
Tim Moore The Evangelical Immigration Table is 11 organizations representing the voice of about 68 million evangelicals across denominational lines. What we’re seeing across the country is the largest portion of growth in our churches coming from immigrants. So as pastors in collaboration with other organizations, we’re confronted pastorally in counseling both legals and illegals. And as the pastor of a Baptist church, I can tell you that, to a person, they admit they’ve done something illegal. They want to pay, they want to right the wrong and they want to do something that gives them the opportunity to correct the situation they’re in. And yet to my great frustration and the frustration of many pastors, there’s really no “line” to get in. And so there’s no answer to their problem. And because the problem is not going away, because of that growth, because this is splitting families and parents, it’s exacerbating the issue inside our churches. We want to bring them out of the shadows and find an answer within the government system that says, “Let’s stop the flow, let’s treat them with dignity, let’s make sure current laws are being honored and adhered to, let’s give them a pathway.” And because of the burgeoning issue we’re dealing with inside our congregations, we have slowly and, yes, a little hesitantly come to the table.
Q Surveys suggest some evangelicals have grave doubts about undocumented workers and immigration.
Ramiro Peña I’ve been very vocal on this issue for more than 20 years. This sweeping rhetoric that (immigrants) are all criminals is just complete ignorance. Our congregation in Waco is very diverse. I’d say the vast majority of our Spanish-speaking congregation is undocumented. The rhetoric used from the right to discuss the plight of people who have risked their lives to come here and do hard work at low pay has been incredibly un-Christian. The consensus of my congregation is it’s irrational and un-Christian. I don’t think this is really so much a conservative or liberal issue as a moral issue, a Christian issue, and needs to be addressed on those grounds.
Q How do you deal with people who see themselves as Christians, yet view illegal immigrants as lawbreakers, no more, no less?
Peña One effective tool is I ask them how they feel about abortion. Almost 100 percent of the time, someone from the right whom I will agree with will have a very conservative position on pro-life issues. And I say, “But, you know, abortion on demand is the rule of law. Yet you oppose it. Why?” Because they consider it immoral and unjust. Yet this same group of folks invoke the law when it comes to immigration. My experience reveals that how we communicate with each other and the logic of our positions force people to reflect a little deeper.
Q Nick, you said your wife is illegal.
Nick Haynes Well, we prefer “undocumented.” Her father lost his job in Mexico in 1994. He struggled for months and months to feed his family. Literally, he could not put food on the table. He had a brother living in the United States who was a U.S. citizen, so he chose to come to Waco. His brother is in Waco.
He crossed the border illegally, began to work and sent money back to Mexico to support his family. After a year of being separated, the family made the choice to come to the United States because there was still no economic opportunity in Mexico. So my wife was smuggled across the border by a coyote, walked across the river in what was a very scary situation for her — a 14-year-old child with no idea of the repercussions of coming into the United States illegally, living the life of an undocumented immigrant and living in the shadows, always having to lie, always having to be afraid. And we’re talking about a child being basically forced into this way of life. It’s the way of life that she grew up with and it’s the only life she understood for years and years. But at the same time, there was now food on the table. That was the No. 1 thing. Basic needs weren’t being met so they crossed the border.
Q As a matter of survival, you’re saying.
Haynes Yes, and she lived this life till we got married. She married a U.S. citizen. I have to admit that for years and years my view toward undocumented immigrants was on the other side. I had a very negative view. It was a very narrow-minded, uninformed and uneducated view until I got married to an undocumented immigrant.
Q What was the biggest catalyst in this arrangement that changed your thinking?
Haynes Well, it happened over time, but as a Christian and knowing people in this situation and realizing these are people working to provide for their families, I realized I was lucky enough to be born in the land of opportunity. But I would go much further than some of them did to provide for my family. I mean, you hear some Christians say, “Oh, I would kill for my family.” So for me to say it’s wrong for them to cross the border to simply provide for their families is pretty hypocritical.
Jim Coston Speaking as a Bible member in all this, any argument from an economic standpoint is given to ebb and flow. Jesus said very clearly, “Love thy neighbor.” In Waco these are our neighbors. That’s not partisan, liberal or conservative, it’s a matter of discipleship and faith. Fifty years ago the civil rights movement got started as a faith issue. Politicians and secular society caught up to it to a degree. Then it becomes political and we elect people to represent us and hammer out some details (into law).
Q What about the matter of border security?
Monica Weisberg-Stewart Nobody cares more about border security than those of us who live on the border and raise our families and work on the border. We take this issue seriously. What does bother us tremendously is the rhetoric that comes out of Washington, the presumption of understanding border security when they don’t put money in the area where it’s really needed.
The Senate bill that passed — they put all their money in the men and women in green, not the men and women in blue. That is, they put it all in border patrol. Well, we’re not short border patrol. We just did one of the largest hirings for the border patrol in all of history. But we’re falling down in the area of customs and border protection — these are the men and women in blue at our ports of entry.
This has caused a dangerous situation right at our ports of entry where we facilitate trade, travel and security. Statistics show the majority of people coming into this country aren’t swimming. They’re coming straight through those ports of entry, overstaying visas and trying to find ways to go through this (immigration) line but, of course, there is no line to go through. It is a broken system because an individual can’t get in the back of the line because, well, show me where the line is. It is a tremendous problem and what it has done to us economically is very scary.
We put these things into place that are absurd impediments. For example, a laser visa card. We went from a green card that used to cost $40 to a laser visa card which is $200. Well, $200 for someone in pesos is a lot of money. Then we took a program where you’d think you could just go to an office real close to fill out proper documentation. But again we made it difficult. Let’s say you live in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. They’ll send you to Juarez to fill out the documentation instead of Monterrey or Matamoros, which are only an hour in either direction. We have a system that is completely broken. If we Americans had to go through any of that — I guarantee — if you thought the IRS scandal was bad, this one is 10 times worse.
Plus, it’s complicating the economy. It is more difficult on the border today than it has ever been because we don’t have a circulatory trade anymore. The lines are so long and we keep putting our money in areas that are not giving us a return on investment. The General Accounting Office says we are 6,000 manpower short at our ports of entry and $6 billion short in infrastructure at our ports of entry. People forget when 9/11 happened, these terrorists came across our ports of entry. They didn’t swim the Rio Grande!
Q This all may make sense, yet you have Congressman John Carter of Round Rock, an undeniable rock-bottom conservative and former judge, who is trying to forge a solution to all this in Congress, and he catches hell from the tea-party crowd for his efforts during a town-hall meeting in August. This is what politicians are afraid of. How can Bibles, Badges & Business reach folks out there?
Moore What we’re seeing around the country through the Evangelical Immigration Table is there’s not a loud pushback of anti-immigration. Seventy-eight percent of evangelicals and nearly 75 percent of the nation polled say, “Solve this thing.” If you look at the people who are most vocal — John Carter’s town-hall meeting was not anti-immigration, his Salado meeting was anti-amnesty. I was there and I watched a tortuous, two-hour endurance of a film that said, “No amnesty, no amnesty, dammit, by God, no amnesty!” And when we finished, I thought, “We could’ve done that in five minutes.” We’re not for amnesty.
Q Is there just a flawed definition out there of what amnesty is? I mean, if I get a speeding ticket, I sure don’t get amnesty. I pay a fine, sometimes considerable, and I move on.
Moore You get deferred adjudication. But a lot of people think that’s amnesty.
Hammond Yes, when it’s really more like probation or deferred adjudication. That’s why it’s not amnesty because there’s a price to pay for having come illegally or in an undocumented manner. What Judge John Carter is saying and others are saying is that, “Yes, you have to pay a price.” We’re not talking about instant citizenship. We’re talking about a pathway to legal status and a green card and then following that same pathway that exists for anyone who has a green card when they initially come to America. They have the normal pathway. From our perspective, that should not be considered amnesty. Amnesty is Jimmy Carter saying to everybody who went to Canada and didn’t want to go to Vietnam, “Come home.”
Weisberg-Stewart The important thing is non-action is no solution. Our country is now at a point where we have to come up with solutions. Those congressmen and senators ran for those positions in order to get the job done. And while they may make decisions that aren’t popular, they need to be leaders and understand what they are in those positions for. Now those crowds they’re seeing probably have opinions just as strong as ours, but the empirical data is on our side. It shows a broken immigration system that makes us less secure in this country. And people on the border are afraid.
Kent McKeever I think the evangelicals have started using their heads and their hearts together more recently. They’ve been thinking deeply about these issues for a long time. But there is also courageous leadership that is beginning to step out. Yes, it takes real stories like that from Nick, plus building relationships with immigrants in our community. But what we really need more of is courageous leaders, especially among our politicians.
Q Aren’t those of you involved in faith work afraid of driving off people in your congregations? I mean, this is a pretty divisive issue. Some people just become unglued at its mention.
Moore Well, yes, it can be a very divisive issue. But what we’re doing with Bibles, Badges & Business and roundtables and other forums, we’re engaging our congregations, we’re trying to get others to understand that, yes, this is highly emotional and very prickly. But they haven’t dealt with this issue to the level we have. And in the evangelical world we’re starting from a biblical basis. What would the Bible say about an immigrant? What would it say about a sojourner? What would it say about a foreigner? And if it says that, is it something we ought to subscribe to today? I’ve heard some pretty liberal gymnastics with Scripture to get us into some positions and I won’t go there. I’m going to take Jesus at his word. If he says, “Love your enemy” — just start there. Well, if I can love my enemy, surely I can love my neighbor, whether he’s legal or illegal. So we start with the premise of the Good Samaritan who finds someone who doesn’t really belong here but is poor or is in a poor circumstance. There are going to be many who will pass him by, but there ought to be those who stop and render aid and help those who are the poorest of our community. And beyond that, we have other reasons to be concerned. I’ve got a friend in Lubbock. He just plowed up his field of cucumbers. He had to do this because there’s no immigrant labor to pick the cucumbers to get them to market. So we have a shadow workforce that ought to be given a system to where they can come out and we can put them to work, let them pay taxes and be part of the economic vitality of this country.
Hammond The jobs issue is very real in the minds of many people. Many don’t understand that when it comes to roofing in the summertime or waiting tables or picking cucumbers, it’s never been that people born in America or born in Texas will not take those jobs. It has always been that not enough people born in Texas or born in America will take those jobs. A lot of the agriculture is going south of the border now.
Q Yet I get letters to the editor constantly about how undocumented workers are stealing American jobs.
Hammond Use the example of dairy farms. Those cows have to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, and the dairy industry is paying top wages and yet they cannot find non-immigrant labor to do those jobs. The same is true with roofing. That’s the classic example. And you hear some people say, “Well, let’s just take everyone on unemployment and make them work in the fields.” Well, no, you’re not, because they’re not going to show up the next day. You need a reliable source of labor. You have a tradition south of the river where agriculture is an honored profession. Unfortunately, working in agriculture is not nearly the honored profession it used to be in America.
Patricia Wilson When it’s all said and done, there are always going to be people hard to convince, but people tend to act out of — for lack of a better word — self-interest. Think about the group in Bibles. The religious community looks at it from the standpoint of Scripture and compassion: How do you have people in this country who are essentially vulnerable because of their status, who are vulnerable to unscrupulous employers in terms of paying them or providing a safe workplace? How can we as a community of faith stand by and let that occur? Businesses look at it from the standpoint of needing workers and the badges are looking at it from the standpoint: Is the status quo the best way to go about this? And it’s not. We have so many resources in law enforcement devoted to what?
Craig Nash Almost everyone has mentioned what church they’re at, but we really represent a very wide spectrum of faith. I mean, Patricia, I and several others represent the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas who don’t agree on a lot of things. But we have come around this table and we agree on this. I think history will show that a lot of the angry voices that you’re referencing are not evangelicals and not Christian really.
Hammond One thing we need to keep in mind is, if we’re very fortunate, we’ll get a bill. It’s not going to be a perfect bill. Everybody in this room would write it slightly different. But this is an opportunity now. In the next 10 weeks (of Congress in session) it’s going to happen or it won’t happen. You’ve got examples in this community about needs in the evangelical community, among undocumented workers, high-tech industries desperate for employees as well as agriculture in the surrounding area. The issue is hot right now. The time is now. This is it. Let’s not let “perfect” get in the way of a bill. Let’s pass a bill, then work to perfect it as time goes on. But if we don’t have a bill by Christmas, we’re not going to have a bill for years.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.