Faith leaders were sharply critical to diplomatic in their responses to President Barack Obama’s El Paso speech that had been billed as a major address on comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama’s 12-minute speech mocked Republicans and in two short paragraphs spelled out his understanding of comprehensive immigration reform.

“[A] trip to the border town of El Paso to give a rhetorical speech to attract Hispanic votes is too little, too late. We, as a people, are not so stupid to accept symbolism over substance,” said Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

He said Obama had been a “disappointment” for Hispanics.

“If the president wants to count on the Latina/o vote in 2012, then he needs to release an actual immigration plan to shepherd through a hostile Congress,” said De La Torre, who writes a frequent column for

Otherwise, Hispanics might hand the upcoming presidential election to another candidate “whose hostility toward Hispanics overshadows Obama’s indifference,” said De La Torre.

“President Obama moved the country in the proper direction. But, it is a bit distressing that at the same time the president perpetuated some of the myths of the debate,” said Stephen Copley, director of Justice for Our Neighbors for the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Copley noted that Obama “called for people to learn English, which many already will do. He called on them to pay taxes, which many already do.”

“It is time to have the policy debate on the need for comprehensive immigration reform based on the need to reunify families,” said Copley, a liaison between United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas and in a forthcoming documentary on immigration.

Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, pointed out that 75 percent of the president’s speech was about the “economic imperatives for immigration reform” and gave too little attention to the “moral imperatives for creating a humane and just system.”

“We will never be able to set politics aside and find common ground until a majority of us can agree that a system for immigration ought to give more weight to the golden rule than to the almighty dollar,” said Prescott.

Expressing concern that more Arizona-style anti-immigration bills will return in state legislatures in 2012, Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, told that the current immigration “policy makes no sense economically, socially or morally.”

Meyer said: “The quickest way for employment abuses to end, families to be kept together, businesses to thrive, and immigrants to contribute fully to American society will involve, first, the right kind of immediate policy changes, then a persuasive White House campaign that deals in immigration realities and destroys the popular myths that have fueled poor decisions and bad laws.”

He also called for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Affairs, criticized the “partisan bickering” and called for a system that works.

“The new security measures of the last few years has made the border safer than ever,” said Smith, “but enforcement alone isn’t enough. We are not going to kick 12 million people out of the U.S. – it is impractical and unaffordable, not to mention inhumane.”

In a letter to Obama, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) said it was pleased that the president continued “to speak about the need for Congressional action to reform our broken immigration system.”

But the ICC added that in the absence of such action “policy changes are urgently needed to uphold family unity and promote community safety.”

IIC is a coalition with 31 member groups, including the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, Church World Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Muslim Public Affairs Committee and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“President Obama, we call on you to immediately cease policies that tear families apart and undermine community safety,” read the letter. “You have the power and the moral responsibility to stand up to anti-immigrant hostility. Please take action now to stop the human rights abuses and make our communities whole once again.”

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said in a press release after Obama’s speech that the issue was too important to wait any longer for the administration and Congress to address.

“Our current policies are breaking up families in the name of enforcing our laws. That should not be,” said Gomez. “We should be reuniting and strengthening families – not separating wives from husbands and children from their parents.”

The archbishop said: “In the absence of comprehensive reform, many states and localities are taking the responsibility of enforcing immigration law into their own hands. This has led to abuses and injustices for many U.S. families and immigrant communities.”

In other immigration news, Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a law on May 10 that is Maryland’s version of the Dream Act. It will offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who meet certain qualifications.

Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has promised to sign into law the Arizona-styled anti-immigration bill passed in the state legislature.

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