Congress tackled the role of religion and ethics in the politically explosive immigration debate Wednesday as biblical passages and church doctrines were invoked during a heated discussion of various reform proposals.

The argument exposed a sharp philosophical divide on an issue that has taken center stage in the wake of Arizona’s passage of a controversial law designed to crack down on illegal immigration.

“We are so far apart philosophically,” one Democratic congresswoman said, that it’s hard to see how a middle ground can be found.

The debate occurred during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing featuring Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention; Bishop Gerald Kicanas from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University law school; and James Edwards Jr., a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“Immigration is ultimately a humanitarian issue since it impacts the basic rights and dignity of millions of persons and their families,” Kicanas said. “As such, it has moral implications, especially how it impacts the basic survival and decency of life experienced by human beings like us. … Our current immigration system fails to meet the moral test of protecting the basic rights and dignity of the human person.”

Kicanas, who is bishop of the Catholic archdiocese in Tucson, Arizona, noted that thousands of men, women and children have died in the desert over the past decade trying to cross from Mexico into the United States.

The current law has to be changed, he said. “Because of a broken system, immigrant families are being separated. Migrant workers are subject to

exploitation by unscrupulous employers, and those attempting to find work by

coming north are being abused and taken advantage of by human smugglers.”

Most illegal migrants are coming “not for nefarious purposes,” but to reconnect with family members or find work, he asserted. “Church teaching acknowledges and upholds the right of a nation to control its borders. (But) it is our view that the best way to secure our southern border is through (comprehensive) immigration reform.”

But Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, repeatedly cited passages from the Bible in support of a stronger crackdown on illegal immigration.

“The Bible contains numerous passages that support the rule of law,” he asserted. “The scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities

with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”

Smith cited, among other things, Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to governing authorities.”

He also noted a passage from Leviticus: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.” This, he contended, does not imply that “foreigners should disregard civil laws to enter (the country) or that we should overlook it when they do.”

Addressing a passage from Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these my brothers,” Smith contended that it “advocates individual acts of kindness (but) does not mandate a public policy.”

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