Immigration an issue of faith, social justice, faith leaders say

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 6:34 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — The intersection of faith communities and undocumented immigrants boils down to a basic Christian tenet, said the Rev. Steven R. Mitchell of the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Rock Springs, Wyo.

"Jesus never turned anyone away. Neither do we," the Rev. Mitchell said.

Mark Kadel, director of World Relief Spokane, said the issue must be framed in terms of "real people."

"In God's eye, no one is illegal. They may be undocumented but they're not illegal," said Kadel, who directs programs that work with refugees, immigrants and victims of human trafficking.

The two men were among a panel of faith leaders to address the inaugural Mountain West Summit on immigration issues Wednesday. They were joined by The Rev. Martin Diaz, who represented the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Father Diaz, pastor of St. Therese parish in Midvale, said the Catholic Church had experienced considerable growth as immigrants of Spanish-speaking countries have immigrated to the United States in recent decades.

About 30 percent of his parishioners are English-speaking, while 70 percent speak Spanish as their primary language.

"We presume among that 70 percent that some of them are undocumented," he said.

Father Diaz said he often encounters two or three Latino families that share a single home, particularly as the economy has floundered.

He frequently encounters undocumented people who face difficult life choices such as whether they can afford to attend a funeral of a relative outside of the country. They run the risk of deportation if they are caught returning to the United States.

A more vexing dilemma, he said, is whether they can afford to return. That can mean obtaining phony documents that enable them to cross the border or seeking the services of someone who can smuggle them over the border.

The Rev. Mitchell, representing the Wyoming Association of Churches, said faith leaders in Wyoming have become increasingly concerned about domestic violence among undocumented immigrants.

These victims, primarily women, have been afraid to contact law enforcement because of their immigration status. A grassroots effort that followed an immigration summit in Wyoming earlier this year resulted in the creation of the community's Latino Resource Center, where victims of domestic violence can seek refuge and other assistance.

"With these types of issues, if you're undocumented, you are afraid to go to the police," the Rev. Mitchell said.

Kadel said the same is true of people enslaved through human trafficking, who number 14,000 to 18,000 in the United States. Many end up in the sex trade or in forced labor in the agricultural or food service industries. Many young women end up working in nail salons.

When they occasionally come to the attention of authorities, "'law enforcement doesn’t necessarily look at them as trafficking victims."

Human trafficking is a growing problem worldwide. It has outstripped drug trafficking as the No. 1 international crime issue, Kadel said.

As unscrupulous business owners attempt to find workers for farms and other businesses, the demand for this underground workforce will increase, he said.

"There is more demand for trafficking in this country than there is a supply."

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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