Debate in Congress over immigration reform is dividing Republicans, prompting protests and raising concern for legal immigrants who view it as a sign that an “anti-immigrant” sentiment is growing in the United States.

The Senate on Wednesday began debate of bill recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would legalize almost 2 million undocumented immigrants through temporary worker programs and pave the way for them to become U.S. citizens.

An immigration bill passed by the Republican-controlled House in December, meanwhile, would make illegal presence in the country a felony and erect a fence along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States.

The move to make criminals out of illegal aliens prompted protests— including 500,000 people who took to the streets last weekend in Los Angeles–in an outpouring that some compare to a new civil-rights movement.

A survey of legal immigrants released Tuesday found two thirds are alarmed at the tone and substance of debate in Congress and in the media, saying they believe anti-immigrant sentiment is rising. A majority believe it is motivated by racism against immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

The religious community is also of two minds on the issue of immigration. Liberal traditions tend to say migrants who come to America in search of a living wage are not criminals but victims of larger forces, such as globalization.

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented workers from around the world working in the U.S. About 6 million are from Mexico. According to the Washington Post, roughly half of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5 a day. The U.S. minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

Annual Mexican Gross Domestic Product per capita is under $7,000, compared to nearly $44,000 in the U.S., and is wider now then when the U.S. and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico in 1992.

Conservatives, meanwhile, emphasizing personal responsibility, tend to oppose what they call “amnesty” for workers who enter the country illegally or remain after their worker visas expire.

According to Baptist Press, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told President Bush that most Southern Baptists want the country’s immigration laws to be enforced before supporting a type of guest-worker program.

Land said he told the president Southern Baptists “are deeply offended at a very basic level when the government doesn’t enforce the law,” which he said the government is not doing rigorously at the border.

“As Southern Baptists, we believe that Romans 13 teaches the government is to punish those who break the law and reward those who obey the law,” Land said. “If the government can convince Southern Baptists it is serious about controlling the borders, then I think a consensus can be built for some kind of guest-worker program that does not involve amnesty and that does not allow people who have come here illegally to jump place in line over those who are attempting to come into the country by the normal, legal channels.”

Daniel Carro, professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, said the question isn’t as simple as enforcing the law, because it also serves the country’s interest to attract illegal workers. They take low-paying jobs in agriculture, construction and housekeeping that many Americans will not do.

Carro said he believes the main teaching of Romans 13 is that governments and human social organizations are accountable to God, “who is the ultimate Judge of all of our actions” and that disobeying an unjust law or an illegal government is also a Christian duty.

Catholic bishops in the U.S. and Mexico issued a pastoral letter in 2003 affirming solidarity with “our migrant brothers and sisters” and pledging to advocate for “just and fair” migration policies.

Many stories in the Bible involve migration. Abraham stepped out in faith in response to God’s call in Genesis 12. He and Sarah extended hospitality to three strangers who turned out to be messengers from God.

Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, eventually became a savior to his family, forced into migration by famine.

After God’s liberation of the Chosen People from enslavement in Egypt, God reminded them they must “befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:17-19).

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus were refugees in Egypt after fleeing Herod. Matthew 25 describes Christ’s mysterious presence in “the stranger.”

The work of the Risen Christ and Holy Spirit serves to unite people of all races and nationality. “You are no longer strangers and aliens,” says Ephesians 2:19, “but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Carro described immigration as a Gordian Knot, which entails far more than just controlling the borders or not doing amnesty.

“It is about millions of people who have come to this country attracted by true possibilities and promises of well-being and progress,” Carro said. “If we, as Christians, cannot see the human side of this intricate problem of illegal immigration in the U.S.A., and if we, as Christians, do not side with the poor and the stranger, in my view, we are not following the teachings of the One who taught us that ‘when I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; when I was a stranger, you welcomed me.'”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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