By Aaron Weaver
DECATUR, Ga. — Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter told a group of religion writers Thursday that it is time to explore new strategies to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.
“If we do the same thing we’ve done before that hasn’t work for six times in a row, we’re probably not going to get a response from that,” Paynter said. “But if we begin to look at new strategies…some of the [immigration] problems can be addressed.”
Paynter’s immigration comments came as part of a panel discussion on religion and immigration at the Emory University Law School in Atlanta in conjunction with the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association.
“There’s nothing like the story from your district to help your [representative] see the need for change,” Paynter said. “Mobilizing large demonstrations have their place. But, one thing that helps a lawmaker move toward solution politics instead of rhetoric politics is to look at the ways an issue like this is affecting their community.”
Sharing individual stories with individual lawmakers to advocate for a specific policy is “one of the key aspects that can make a difference” in the immigration debate, Paynter said. She stressed the need for government to focus on fixing the “legal immigration system” in its current form, noting that much of the immigration debate is centered on illegal immigration.
“If it takes six years for someone who is in line to get a green card or 17 years for someone to reunite with their family, you are creating an incentive to get around the system,” Paynter said.
She suggested that addressing immigration issues separately rather than as a larger, comprehensive package might prove to be a more successful approach toward achieving reform. Paynter noted that the term “comprehensive” in the debates over immigration reform has become a “tag word” for a particular type of reform.
Paynter highlighted the focus of faith leaders on shared principles such as family reunification and border security as a proven and effective way to build a coalition in support of immigration reform.
“There has been a very concerted effort to bring evangelicals together in a very intentional and now long-term coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table,” Paynter said. “The way in which that has been accomplished has been in true coalition form, not asking people to give up all their platforms, but asking people to work together around [shared] principles.”
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values, has called for a bipartisan solution on immigration that respects the God-given dignity of every person, protects the unity of the immediate family and respect the rule of law. The group advocates for secure national borders, fairness to taxpayers and a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.
Discussing these principles shared among evangelicals, Paynter pointed to the power of Scripture in immigration debates.
“The use of the Bible in any issue is always complex. …You don’t have to draw an indirect line between the issue of immigration and the biblical text,” Paynter said. “It’s explicit. It’s explicit in the Old Testament, and it’s explicit in the New Testament.”
At the congregational level, churches have been providing many services and ministries to immigrants in their communities, such as ESL and citizenship classes, Paynter said. She added that the response of the religious community toward the plight of the unaccompanied children at the United States-Mexico border has been one of “solidarity and care.” However, Paynter pointed to the desperate need for persons to be trained as an accredited representative with the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, to advocate for and assist immigrants in navigating the complexities of the immigration system.
The U.S. as well as faith communities have been deeply enriched by the presence of immigrants in our midst, Paynter said.
“Our [evangelical] community has been immersed in a beautiful engagement with immigrant brothers and sisters of faith. …The evangelical community is more diverse today because of immigration to our country. We’ve been immersed with many cultures — seeing that has brought the evangelical community to this point.”
Other panelists Thursday included Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials; Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute; Teresa Fry Brown, professor of homiletics and director of Black Church Studies at Emory’s Candler School of Theology; and Merle Black, professor of politics and government at Emory. John Blake of CNN moderated the discussion.
In April, Paynter was among a small group of faith leaders who met in the Oval Office to speak with President Barack Obama about the efforts of the religious community to support immigration reform. At the meeting, Paynter and the other faith leaders shared with the president stories about the impact the failure to fix the immigration system has on families in their congregations and communities.
Last year, Paynter participated in a panel discussion at an immigration conference at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. During the July 2013 event, Paynter joined faith and business leaders as well as President George W. Bush in speaking in favor of immigration reform. Paynter discussed the ways immigrants contribute to the U.S. through service in their congregations, emphasizing the important role of immigrants in the biblical story.
CBF is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a passion for the Great Commission and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.