The recent tide of refugees from Latin America, Haiti, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia, Poland and other world trouble spots has put special pressure on American religious institutions.
They have responded with efforts as varied as pressing the government for more humane immigration laws to trying to figure out how churches can serve illegal aliens without breaking the law.
With recent immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area conservatively estimated at 150,000, the Roman Catholic archdiocese last week held a workshop to explore the church's responsibility to both legal and illegal immigrants, most of whom are Catholics.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Brooklyn, head of immigration questions for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church must provide "spiritual, social and legal services for the newcomers," in addition to serving as an advocate for federal legislation and just enforcement of the law.
Churches, he said, should provide English classes; help with housing, employment and medical care; translation services; counseling for psychological problems; and legal services "even if it's to tell them that there is no possibility of legalizing their status so they will not go to someone who will exploit them."
"As their defender, we must stand up and speak out against unwarranted attacks on these defenseless persons," he said. "As their hope and comforter, we must constantly encourage them, help them to see themselves as persons of worth. We must build up their self-image. We must recognize their culture, celebrate their patronal feasts."
The bishop said that the illegal, or undocumented immigrants, as church leaders call them, are especially in need of the church's ministry because "they live with the sword of Damocles constantly over their heads," constantly fearing disclosure and deportation.
Bevilacqua acknowledged criticisms that have been leveled at the church's aid to illegal immigrants. "We're not in favor of illegality," he explained. "We're just treating them as human beings that happen to be here."
He pointed out that because they have no legal status, the undocumented are easy victims of exploitation by employers, unethical lawyers and even a spouse who has legal status and who can resolve marital tensions by calling the authorities and turning in the husband or wife. "It's much cheaper than divorce or legal separation," said the bishop, since the undocumented spouse "is usually gone within 48 hours."
Christian and Jewish religious institutions have been deeply involved with problems of immigration through much of the nation's history. After World War II, their task changed from their earlier role of helping to Americanize coreligionists emigrating from Europe, to a close partnership with the federal government in implementing immigration laws.
Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups provided housing, employment, documentation and community support for millions of displaced persons who resettled here afterWorld War II, and subsequently for Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees.
On another level, religious groups have kept an anxious eye on changes in immigration law and enforcement. In recent years, Catholic and Protestant groups have been outspoken in their criticism of the government's reluctance to grant political asylum to refugees from the turmoil in El Salvador and other Central American countries.
This week, the National Capital Union Presbytery adopted a resolution of encouragement and support for local churches that provide "sanctuary" from arrest to Central Americans "who flee to the United States to escape the threat of death or severe repression" in their own country.
The resolution also called on the U.S. government to take a more sympathetic attitude toward such persons and grant them temporary resident status.
A number of other Protestant groups have taken similar positions.
On a broader scale, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups have expressed concern over the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which was passed by the Senate in July, but may not make it through the House before the end of the session. Among other things, the bill would offer amnesty to illegal aliens who have been in this country continuously since Jan. 1, 1980; cap annual immigration at 425,000; provide a $1,000 fine per worker for employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
The new bill also would eliminate present provisions that give special preference in immigration to unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents and to brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.
Religious leaders continue to press for keeping the present, more liberal family reunification provisions. They are also pushing for moving the cutoff date for amnesty for illegals up to Jan. 1, 1982.
Whether or not the bill passes this session of Congress, Bevilacqua urged that the church "organize a confidential system of registration" of illegal immigrants that can provide documentary proof of their residence here whenever legislation is adopted. "Eventually, there must be an amnesty," he said.
Bevilacqua said that for the church, implementation of new immigration legislation is "going to mean a tremendous outlay of funds" to provide the documentation and paperwork.
Implementing the amnesty provision is going to be a delicate matter, he said. "The problem of the church is going to be how you inform the INS of an illegal alien without having him endangered."
He proposed that documentation offered by the immigrant for legal resident status be examined carefully. "If you see that the person has a very good chance, then you submit the documents. If you see that there is no chance, you don't have to submit the documents or the name."