WASHINGTON – The first nationwide, church-based immigration ministry is not discouraged by last week's failed immigration bill, but instead vows to continue to help legal and illegal immigrants gain citizenship.
"The pathway to an immigration bill has for over six months now been in question whether there would be a bill at all," said Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) Christian Life Commission, to The Christian Post on Saturday. "So the fact that the bill didn't go forward doesn't really affect our ministry because we designed our ministry to help people under the existing system."
BGCT and the Baptist social service group Buckner International last week announced their partnership to create the Immigration Service and Aid Center (ISAAC) – the first nationwide effort by a local church-based ministry to help immigrants become U.S. citizens.
ISACC's official announcement at the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas – the largest gathering of Hispanic Baptists in the United States – came one day before the Senate temporarily revived the immigration bill last Tuesday.
"Once it was clear that the immigration issue was going to be so divisive, we designed this ministry so it would not be dependent upon that legislation," explained Paynter.
"We will do the best we can to help people who want to seek citizenship or status assessment and who are eligible," she said. "And try to keep them out of the scams, fraud, and empty promises of so many charlatans that advertise themselves as immigration consultants."
The two Texas-based groups offer to help congregations – Baptists and non-Baptists alike – across the country to start government-accredited immigration centers to help people with citizenship issues. Accreditation allows churches to provide immigrants with assistance in the preparation of immigration forms and, in some circumstances, represent them in immigration court.
Last Thursday, the immigration bill – which would have provided a pathway for the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to gain citizenship – collapsed in the Senate.
Opponents of the bill, although acknowledging the existing broken system, denounced the bill as amnesty and demanded tighter border security.
Under the bill, illegal immigrants would have the opportunity to become citizens after paying fines, learning English, filing paperwork, and fulfilling other procedures, while billions would be poured into tightening border security.
The bill would also create a guest worker program, enforce new bans on hiring illegal workers, and give visa priority for skill workers over family ties.
Paynter pointed to the Bible to explain the BGCT's support for helping immigrants gain citizenship.
"You cannot deny the message of migration in the biblical story, in the Old Testament and the New Testament," she said according to the Associated Press. "God calling people into unknown lands is very central to the biblical story."
The BGCT immigration spokesperson also said the church has a "biblical mandate" to speak up for the alien and stranger in the country.
"We believe the best way to do this is through the proper legal channels set forth by the United States," Paynter said in a statement.
The Hispanic Baptist Convention is an arm of the 2.3 million-member Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). The convention claims more than 5,600 Texas Baptist churches as members, making it the largest state Baptist convention in the country and the largest non-Catholic Christian group in the state. It has ties to both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.