Faith Leaders Condemn Arizona Legislation Targeting Immigrants and Refugees

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Faith leaders from a range of religious backgrounds banded together to condemn several bills moving through the Arizona Legislature that they say promote discrimination against immigrants and refugees.

One proposed law is House Bill 2370, which would allow the state to refuse to help refugees if it can't ensure they have undergone thorough background checks. The bill also would require the federal government to fully compensate the state for any costs that the state incurs for the placement of refugees.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, said HB 2370 essentially would exclude people seeking refuge in the United States after fleeing terror in their home countries. He noted that the Bible calls on people to have compassion for refugees and “to open up our homes for them.

“The belief is that God resides with the refugee who is fleeing,” he said. “When we deny them entry, we are denying God entry. We are creating a Godless state when we say the most vulnerable on the planet have no place here.”

Two House committees passed HB 2370 in January. The bill still hasn’t gone to the House floor for a vote.

Episcopal Bishop Kirk Smith, in expressing his opposition to HB 2370, said biblical figures Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all were refugees: “So my question for the lawmakers of this state and the voters of this state is simply this: Whose side do you want to be on?”

Both Yanklowitz and Smith were among a group of faith leaders who gathered outside the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday to speak out against this bill. They were also among the more than 120 faith leaders who signed a letter expressing their opposition to HB 2370 and to other bills that they say target immigrants and refugees. The letter was sent to state House and Senate lawmakers.

The faith leaders also spoke out against Senate Bill 1377, which would stiffen sentences for undocumented immigrants and essentially make it impossible for them to receive leniency in courts if they’re convicted of a misdemeanor or felony. It passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House.

Reverend Ken Heintzelman, senior minister of the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, said because the bill also would establish stricter sentencing requirements for people convicted of harboring immigrants, he's worried it could stifle humanitarian-aid workers or congregations, like his, that provide shelter and services to immigrants.

Heintzelman's congregation has given sanctuary to several undocumented immigrants facing deportation, including Misael Perez from Guatemala, who was pulled over and placed into deportation proceedings even though he has no criminal record. Perez ultimately was allowed to stay in the United States.

Reverend Erin Tamayo, executive director of the Arizona Faith Network, said this wave of bills targeting immigrants reminds her of when lawmakers approved anti-immigrant SB 1070 six years ago and damaged the state's economy and image, which still are recovering.

“We know that discriminatory laws like SB 1070 succeeded in making an unwelcoming and hostile environment for people living in our state,” she said. “But now there are efforts to introduce new legislation that would continue to make Arizona a state where the most vulnerable, those fleeing unlivable conditions in their home countries, are unable to seek refuge.” 

Tamayo added: "We call on lawmakers to stand up and speak out against discriminatory policies."

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