Immigration Law: Dilemma Deepens for Churches

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Dick Haddon had faced difficult moral issues before, but never over hiring a janitor. He was finding this simple act of employment so difficult, in fact, that he put it off for weeks, sweeping out the Gardena First United Methodist Church himself.

His dilemma was this: If he hired the best person for the job, most likely he would violate the law; if he obeyed the law, he would violate his own conscience.

Finally, he decided, if the best applicant for the job turned out to be an illegal immigrant--a likelihood in the heavily Latino neighborhood--he would hire that person in violation of the 1986 immigration law, exposing himself to fines and a jail term, all for something that two years ago was not a crime.

Small Movement


“To me, this new immigration law challenges the church and individuals like nothing that’s come along for a while,” said the Methodist pastor. “It’s the place where your religious mandate confronts you with Caesar’s law. You either cozy up to the law and numb your conscience, or you can’t live with yourself.”

Haddon counts himself as part of a small religious movement that began almost unnoticed in a Los Angeles barrio two years ago and is now spreading across the country. While most religious hospitals, churches and schools are clearly abiding by the law, these conscientious objectors, as some see themselves, are vowing to bend, twist, or break it on moral grounds.

The movement stems from practices developed since 1980 by more than 400 churches and synagogues that have declared themselves sanctuaries for Central American refugees. Proponents say it may eventually have a greater impact because it requires less effort: It involves the simple act of refusing to fill out a form, called the “I-9,” for new employees.

But notes the Rev. Paula Bidle, director of Chicago’s Metropolitan Sanctuary Alliance: “It’s a more radical step than sanctuary. . . . This is clearly going up against a law for people who are not as clearly having their rights violated.”


The law, which polls say most Americans support, is designed to create an “economic incentive” for illegal aliens to go back home by fining or jailing employers who hire them. But to the many religious groups that opposed the law even before it was passed, that economic incentive translates as the deliberate creation of hunger among hundreds of thousands of immigrants who did not qualify for amnesty.

Many church organizations are lobbying to change the law. The question is what to do in the likely event that they cannot.

For Father Gregory Boyle, in whose Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights the movement began, that decision has been made. He estimates that perhaps half his parishioners are illegal immigrants. He admitted that he has hired at least one of them knowing the man did not have papers.

‘Turn Our Backs?’

“What are we supposed to do, turn our backs on these people?” he asked. “We can’t. (So) we aid, we abet, we harbor. We respond pastorally, and if that means breaking the law, so be it. . . . Our starting point is, Jesus wouldn’t ask for papers, so why should I?”

Such public statements infuriate federal officials, who announced three weeks ago that Boyle and two other priests are under investigation. Their actions came as the Immigration and Naturalization Service was stepping up enforcement of the employer sanctions provision of the law, which calls for penalties against employers of $100 to $10,000 per employee, and up to six months in jail for repeat offenders.

These are some of the developments taking place in the movement:

- Across the country, some Protestant religious groups, including the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, have adopted resolutions advocating non-compliance with the law but leaving the final decision up to each member.


“There is a growing concern among the major mainline Protestant churches over the human consequences of the employer sanctions of the new immigration law,” said Pat Taran, immigrant services coordinator for Church World Service, a branch of the National Council of Churches. “Some national assemblies are beginning to take up the issue, suggesting that . . . the implications of civil disobedience need to be studied.”

- The U.S. Catholic Conference is expected to vote next month on a resolution that discourages breaking the law, but adds: “We realize that some (Catholic) employers will decide not to comply . . . for a man has in his heart a law written by God (and) to obey it is the very dignity of man.”

- Priests, ministers, nuns and some social service agency heads are already violating the law. In Chicago, 60 priests, nuns and lay people from about half of the Latino parishes have declared publicly that they will not fill out immigration forms. In Los Angeles, some religious employers are hiring illegal immigrants, mostly in small numbers, and paying them in cash under the table.

- Other religious organizations are joining with social service agencies to adopt “creative employment strategies,” such as job cooperatives to help needy immigrants get jobs outside the scope of the law.

- One national religious organization plans to file a lawsuit in November seeking exemption to the law similar to that used by conscientious objectors during war.

The movement began Dec. 12, 1986, when, after weeks of discussions among parishioners, Boyle’s Dolores Mission declared itself a “sanctuary for the undocumented.”

That was the first time in the United States that a sanctuary church extended refuge not only to Central Americans fleeing war, but also to Mexican citizens and others fleeing poverty. Afterward, Boyle said, someone spray-painted the words “wetback church” on church walls.

Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church at Olvera Street, perhaps the busiest Latino parish in the country, proclaimed itself a sanctuary to illegal immigrants a year later. Now, as the number of jobs shrinks with the new law, more than 100 homeless men sleep nightly on the pews of “La Placita.”


Father Luis Olivares, pastor, and Father Mike Kennedy, associate pastor, have held frequent press conferences denouncing the law and asking openly for employers to hire the jobless who congregate in the church patio daily.

INS Commissioner Unhappy

Those statements have drawn the ire of INS Western Region Commissioner Harold Ezell, who announced three weeks ago that the INS was conducting an investigation to find out whether their statements were “more than just smoke and mirrors.”

“The whole thing is just political with the three renegade priests,” he charged in an interview. “It’s the old Trojan horse. They’re just using these folks for their own political agenda, their own anti-Reagan Administration policies on Latin America.”

Though other religious figures in other cities have been just as public about their actions, the issue has taken on a personal and political dimension here. Each side claims that the other has a broader political agenda.

Unlike most other INS regional commissioners, Ezell is a political appointee. He is the son of an Assembly of God minister and the brother of another. He and his church, he said, support the U.S.-backed “struggling democracy” in El Salvador. His own friends, he said, include missionaries in Nicaragua helping refugees who support the Reagan Administration-backed Contra guerrillas.

Different Perspective

Boyle and Kennedy, on the other hand, are Jesuits. Jesuits have been among the leaders of the liberation theology movement that is espoused by some leftist Sandinistas now ruling Nicaragua, and by some opponents of the U.S.-backed government in El Salvador. Olivares, a Claretian priest, also opposes U.S. policy in Central America.

The priests quote, among other religious bases for their position, a passage from Leviticus in the Old Testament: “You shall treat the aliens who reside with you no differently than the natives born among you.”

Counters Ezell: “What about Romans 11 or 13 (from the New Testament) that says, ‘You must obey all governing authorities?’ ”

Enter Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, who on Oct. 5 announced his own policy on issues related to illegal immigrants. The law was in “direct conflict” with Catholic teaching, he said, citing a 1981 papal encyclical that said immigrants “should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights.”

He vowed to lobby to change the law and to continue offering food, shelter, schooling and medical care without asking for papers. In all of this, he said, he was in 90% agreement with the three priests. But, he stressed, he would not tolerate “any steps which include the direct violation of law.”

Mahony explained in an interview that he did not consider deprivation of a job as occupying the “same rung on the ladder as discrimination, apartheid, genocide, and a lot of other human rights.” Because the church is caught between obeying the law and following Gospel, he said, his policy had to be a “balancing act” of “philosophical, theological and strategic” considerations.

Olivares said this week that he hopes to talk with Mahony soon to discuss a “compromise” that he declined to discuss in detail, except to say that it involved the three priests toning down their public statements.

Most, though not all, the debates over this issue are taking place in private anyway, in convents, at sanctuary meetings and in individual churches and agencies.

Lay People Balked

Sister Judy Carle, assistant president of the Sisters of Mercy of Burlingame, Calif., said her group wanted to refuse to obey the law in its Catholic Health Care West, a dozen hospitals with 25,000 employees. But, she said, lay employees balked.

Unwilling to force their employees to break the law, she said, the sisters agreed to a policy of “doing everything else we can short of what people see as breaking the law--everything possible.” That includes, she said, ignoring clearly counterfeit documents. The law does not require any employer to make a determination whether such documents are legitimate or not.

One Los Angeles nun, whose community here works with poor immigrants and runs several institutions, said many churches in immigrant neighborhoods are “not recruiting, but continuing to hire, the undocumented” and “paying cash if they don’t have cards.”

“If the archbishop says, ‘I want a list of everybody hired,’ it would be a pretty ugly scene,” she added.

Some Abiding by Law

Others are abiding unquestioningly by the law. For example, Richard Smith, president of Queen of Angels Medical Center, said, “To operate the hospital and flaunt the law is not in our best interests.”

The question of giving sanctuary not only to refugees fleeing war, but also to almost limitless numbers of illegal immigrants fleeing hunger has brought about intense debate within the sanctuary movement itself. After years of trying to educate American citizens to their position that Salvadorans, for example, are bona fide refugees under international human rights accords because they are fleeing war, sanctuary purists find that this new issue only muddies waters that they have been trying to clear.

“I think we are somewhat divided over this,” said Mary Brent Wehrli, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which coordinates sanctuary congregations here. “Was it realistic to go into congregations and tell people what they had to do? For the vast majority of people, we felt that was overstepping our bounds.”

‘A Decent Motive’

Evely Laser Shlensky, social action coordinator for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who is active in the sanctuary movement, added: “Sanctuary for the undocumented is a decent motive . . . but I myself do not consider it part of the sanctuary movement. I feel that would be diluting our efforts on behalf of refugees.”

Quaker Jim Corbett of Tucson, who has been convicted of charges stemming from smuggling Central American immigrants over the Arizona border and is considered a grandfather of the sanctuary movement, said of breaking the law to help illegal immigrants:

“It certainly sounds like sanctuary to me . . . but I believe it ought to be an open initiative of civil disobedience. If not, it’s not accountable, and could become do-gooder vigilantism.”

Peter Schey, executive directive of the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc. in Los Angeles, said he is now drafting a lawsuit for a national religious group, which he declined to identify, that will seek an exemption to the law based on the model of conscientious objector status.

Legal Analysis

Patrice Pirellie, an attorney who is director of the Catholic Charities Immigration Program of the San Francisco Archdiocese, prepared an extensive legal analysis of the various options that is being circulated among many religious groups.

Any church group that violates the law could risk losing its tax-exempt status and donations and risk bankruptcy underwriting legal fees and fines, she said. On the other hand, if a church group offering services to immigrants complies, she said, “it would undermine (their) ability to serve the undocumented community by eroding their trust.”

Currently, she said, the archdiocesan policy is to help fund a Bay Area jobs cooperative that takes advantage of a small loophole in the law allowing employers to hire domestic workers on an intermittent basis in their homes. The cooperative has a telephone number given out to all parishes and published in Catholic newsletters.

Thrown Into Confusion

Because many religious groups are unwilling to force their employees to take stands either way that violate their own consciences, one immediate effect is confusion. The treasurer of the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, for example, recently refused to place on his payroll a secretary who had worked in another office because she had no papers.

The resolution passed by the conference “said we must choose,” said treasurer Duane Johnson. “I personally choose to obey the law.” Now, Frank de Jesus Acosta, director of the church’s Downtown Legalization Project, is considering hiring her.

“This is no different to me than opposing Jim Crow laws,” asserted Acosta, who says he will steadfastly refuse to obey the law. “I’ll stand by my position. Probably half the church may not back me on this, I don’t know. We’ll find out.”