CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – The enactment of a harsh new state immigration law in January 2012 is causing concern among a number of church groups in South Carolina due to the possibility of losing members of their congregations and of being fined for transporting the undocumented.
“This legislation is inhumane,” the Rev. Alfredo Gonzalez, pastor of Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Columbia, the state capital, told Efe on Friday.
“Even before going into effect, it’s upsetting Hispanic families who are afraid to step out of their houses and live a normal daily life – or even come to church.”
The Costa Rican-born pastor says the Hispanic congregation his church has served since 2006 has declined from 300 to 200 families, as undocumented immigrants decide to head back to their home countries or move to other states.
“The worst of it is the harm SB 20 is doing to children,” he said.
The Episcopalian cleric recalled that when he picked up some kids at their homes this year to take them to summer school, they saw a cop and tried to hide on the bus.
Two lawsuits, one by the U.S. Justice Department and the other by a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, are out to stop SB 20 from being enforced.
One argument against the law is that it penalizes people – including clergy – with jail and fines for giving rides to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Under this legislation, cops carrying out routine traffic duties can question the immigration status of absolutely anyone who sparks a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is undocumented.
Leaders of South Carolina Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians met Oct. 17 to discuss the immigration question.
The clergy acknowledge the headache it gives churches to discuss the subject, knowing as they do that some members of the faithful favor strict laws against undocumented immigration, but at the same time they must have a Christian response to the tribulations of their flocks.
“A balance has to be struck between border security and immigration reform that treats everyone, legal or undocumented, with dignity and compassion,” Catholic Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone said at the meeting.
Other groups, such as Church World Services, are guided by the Bible and how it says God spoke of foreigners and immigrants.
“Jesus says that foreigners must be welcomed and helped with their needs. Salvation is linked to the way we receive them,” Joan Maruskin, coordinator of the organization’s religious programs, said.
Hispanics represent 5.1 percent of the population of South Carolina, or 235,893 people. Fewer than a quarter of those Latino residents are undocumented, according to data from the Pew Hispanic Center. EFE