Why Alabama’s Immigration Law is an Assault on Religious Values

"Tuscaloosa Dice says no HB56"

Alabama residents demonstrate at the state capitol against HB 56. Credit: Creative Commons/ Justin Valas.

Alabama’s draconian anti-immigration law, HB 56, has been partially blocked, but it continues to cast a shadow over churches, schools, and homes across the state. Signed into law in 2011, the legislation is harsher even than Arizona’s anti-immigration law, which has received much more media attention.

Faith communities in Alabama, which have come together against the law, remain on edge over whether they may eventually be targeted and torn apart by Section 13 of the law, which makes it a crime to harbor or transport immigrants who are not authorized to be in the United States.

Section 13 and some of the other harshest parts of the law are not currently being enforced, thanks to an August 2012 ruling by the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but they nevertheless remain on the books in Alabama. This April, the Supreme Court declined to consider a case concerning HB 56, thus leaving in place the appeals court ruling blocking the law.

Since the August 2012 ruling that blocked the enforcement of Section 13, anti-immigrant forces have continued to angle for its reinstatement. For example, in the fall of 2012, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley requested that the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstate Section 13 of Alabama’s anti-immigration law—the section that states that harboring undocumented immigrants, transporting them, and encouraging them to reside in Alabama is against the law.

Protestors of HB 56

Immigrants and allies from across Alabama (and beyond) rally at the capitol against HB 56. Subsequently, they marched through Montgomery to the Governor's Mansion. Credit: Creative Commons/Justin Valas.

Methodist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic groups challenged this section before Judge Sharon Blackburn, but the judge rejected their argument about the law’s infringement on religious freedom because the bishops’ argument was doctrinal, not ministerial. The bishops’ argument focused on doctrinal beliefs and not on the provision of services that church groups engage in as part of living their faith. There is nothing in Section 13 that speaks to doctrinal beliefs and therefore the judge ruled that it does not impinge on freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly. In truth, Section 13 impinges on religious freedom and practice because it stands in the way of the ministerial provision of services to immigrants. Thankfully, this section was struck down based on a civil argument, even though the judge did not accept the faith groups’ religious arguments.

Love Does No Harm to a Neighbor

Section 13 of HB 56, if reinstated, would directly violate the ethical and moral obligations of people of faith.

A dream for immigration reform

A note from a participant in the University of Chicago’s January 2012 MLK Celebration Day expresses solidarity with immigrants in Alabama. Credit: Creative Commons/Quinn Dombrowski.

In order to thrive, immigrants coming to Alabama need to find places where they can meet people with whom to form new community ties. Churches and congregations are these places because in part they are following the tenets of the faith to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. Congregations, regardless of faith tradition, seeking to live out their faith teachings to welcome the stranger and provide hospitality to the least of these are providing as an integral part of their ministry the resources enabling immigrants to thrive here in Alabama.

Governor Bentley’s reply to this argument from faith leaders was as follows: “If they read what I read in the Bible, the Bible says you always obey the law.”

Bentley was referring to the portion of Romans 13 in the Christian Scriptures that opens with: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

However, that full section of Scripture ends with the following, which places submission to government into context:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love does no harm to a neighbor, Bentley’s Bible states. Yet HB 56 does do harm to our neighbors. Our immigrant neighbors are working hard, paying taxes, building up the community, and creating businesses that strengthen the economy. Immigrant neighbors possess the same expressed dreams for a better life for their children. This law seeks to rid our communities of people who are doing no harm, people who are loving and caring for their communities.

This law has encouraged people to express their bigotry and prejudice against their neighbor. Therefore, any law that causes harm to their neighbor, using Bentley’s argument of always following what the Bible says, is not a law that is to be obeyed. Such a law must be disobeyed. It must be broken time and time again because it goes against a higher law: the law of Love.

Coming Out of the Shadows

Last summer, the congregation I serve in Tuscaloosa provided hospitality to a group of undocumented people from across the country with the “No Papers, No Fear Ride to Justice Tour.” Had Section 13 not been struck down, our action would have converted my justice-seeking congregation into felons because we harbored and transported immigrants, and encouraged them to remain in Alabama.

"Declaration of Immigration" on wall

A mural in Chicago asserts that no human being is "illegal." Credit: Creative Commons/Travis Estelle.

Their staying with us for a week led me to reflect on the Book of Job. In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of his translation, he defines the Hebrew word tam v’-yashar as literally meaning “whole (blameless) and upright.” Then later he comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense. He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish” (italics Mitchell’s).

I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

One of the taglines the “No Papers, No Fear” group used is coming out of the shadows. Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows. The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from. Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns. We simply expect that there will be food and clothing, clean hotel rooms, and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply. The workers who make this happen are too often in the shadows, whether they are workers in a poultryprocessing plant in Mississippi, day laborers in Alabama, or migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida. Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun. Without them all would be darkness.

These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.

The Need for Safety Nets

To feel that “all is well,” we all need multiple safety nets below us to keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America—white America especially—take for granted. We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to bounce us back up to the wire. But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this:

What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.

The wealthy in America can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled because the wealthy can shove them inside the shadows. The middle class is expected to follow suit, but now many are finding our footing slipping. The upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed, which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.

Crosses hanging on wall

Crosses on the U.S.-Mexico border wall memorialize immigrants who died while trying to cross over. Credit: Creative Commons/ Jonathan McIntosh.

Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down. If only he kept his mouth shut. If only he kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but no, he had to declare he was still whole and upright. He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash. And so, too, are the people on the “No Paper, No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour” declaring their inherent worth and dignity, and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes. They are bringing America’s shadow into the light, and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.

When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be. The poor includes all of the poor: the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented.

This is the argument that the bishops failed to make against HB 56. The work of people of faith lies here in attending to the people in the shadows, including those who are immigrants among us. HB 56 criminalizes the ability of faithful people to provide sanctuary, transportation to needed services, and the basic care that the despicable Samaritan offered to one injured by society. This law needs to be repealed (not sections reinstated), so people of faith can bring everyone out of the shadows and truly be whole and upright living in the noonday light of love.


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