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Richard Munoz, foreground, addresses Baptist leaders at Hyde Park
Baptist Church on Monday to announce the creation of the Immigration
Service and Aid Center. He is the center's interim director.

Baptists launch immigration program

Cox News Service
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

AUSTIN, Texas — Citing a biblical obligation to "speak on behalf of the stranger," Texas Baptist leaders announced recently the creation of a national initiative to churches to provide legal assistance to immigrants seeking citizenship.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, which represents 5,600 congregations and 2.3 million Baptists, and Buckner International, a Baptist ministry that helps at-risk children, said they have joined to create the Immigration Service and Aid Center, or ISAAC.

The program, which leaders say will be the first nationwide effort of its kind, is based on a similar program in Texas.

Leaders who gathered at Hyde Park Baptist Church said they hope to build a small army of people from churches of all denominations, then help them get accredited by the federal government to help immigrants navigate the time-consuming, often cumbersome path to citizenship or legal residency.

They envision church-based centers that will help immigrants who entered the U.S. legally or illegally and will be open to people from all countries.

The question of how churches should respond to illegal immigrants has driven a wedge between Christians around the country.

"There are divergent views in the pews," said Richard Munoz, interim director of ISAAC.

Some, he said, cite biblical passages that require believers to obey the government, while others quote Scripture that tells them to "welcome the alien."

This program, Munoz said, will show Christians "they can do both."

Christians sense the urgency of the issue, said Charles Wade, executive director of the Texas convention.

"While our nation and our politicians debate how to go about it, " he said. "We can't wait to help people who need help."

Leaders with the Southern Baptist Convention, the more conservative national Baptist group that is frequently at odds with the Texas convention, passed a resolution last year urging compassion for illegal immigrants, though many continue to stress concerns about border security.

The idea for ISAAC grew out of the Baptist Immigration Services Network, which has been led over the past year by Suzii Paynter, director of the state convention's Christian Life Commission. That program has helped churches gain government accreditation and provided the legal training people need to help immigrants fill out government forms and to represent them in immigration court.

Paynter, who lives in Austin, said that effort was barely under way when it began to draw interest from leaders in other states and prompted her organization to pursue a national effort with Buckner International.

"We know there is a need for this," Paynter said. "There's so many things that are broken in our immigration system. . . . There are a lot of people who could get papers and could get a status adjustment, but they don't have access to . . . trusted and government-accredited help."

Paynter said many immigrants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer are defrauded by people who claim to provide immigration assistance, then take immigrants' money without delivering anything.

ISAAC will assist churches in obtaining basic immigration law training and show them how to set up immigration centers.

The Baptist initiative is desperately needed, said David Walding, director of the Bernardo Kohler Center in Kyle. He said the center takes on about 100 immigration cases a year — mostly helping people obtain asylum in the United States, but they must turn away dozens more.

"There is so much more demand than there is supply for these legal services," he said. "Especially in rural communities, this is going to be a tremendous benefit."

Alex Camacho, pastor of Hispanic Baptist Church in McKinney, Texas, tried for years to rally fellow Baptist leaders to help immigrants seeking citizenship, but he said he always met resistance. Too controversial, fellow Baptist leaders would tell him.

Camacho, who started perhaps the first a church-based legal assistance program in Texas in 1987 and represents immigrants in federal court, said he's overwhelmed by the demand for his services.

"That's why I've been coming here for years to motivate pastors," he said of the Convención Bautista Hispana, the largest gathering of Hispanic Baptists in the United States, which meets in Austin this week.

Daniel Kowalski, a lawyer who edits an online immigration law journal and Bender's Immigration Bulletin Web site, said he found Monday's announcement encouraging.

"I think it's significant that more and more denominations, especially Protestant denominations and especially if they're tagged as evangelical . . . get involved in immigration issues," he said.

Eileen E. Flynn writes for the Austin American-Statesman.
E-mail: eflynn AT statesman.com


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