Unlike last year's Evangelical Climate Initiative, which drew headlines, stunned some longtime "traditional values" conservative evangelicals, and was an attempt to build bridges to combat global warming, the newly formed "Families First on Immigration" appears to have elicited little support for its grand entrance into the immigration debate.
And, unlike the numerous religious organisations that have consistently supported undocumented workers and their families, Families First on Immigration is focused more on securing the U.S. borders and eliminating citizenship birthright than with the human rights of immigrants.
Under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, anyone born in the United States is a citizen -- a right Families First is waging an extremely uphill battle to overturn.
For quite some time, the religious sector has had contrasting views on immigration. Nowhere was this more in evidence than during an address Joan Maruskin, the liberal director of the Church World Service Immigration Program, gave at an immigration conference held last April organized by the Family Research Council, a Washington-based Christian conservative lobbying group.
Against the backdrop of an FRC-sponsored member poll that found that 90 percent of respondents chose forced deportation as the appropriate fate for the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants here, Maruskin called the Bible "an immigration handbook" and argued in favour of amnesty -- to what observers said what a decidedly tepid response.
Nearer the other side of the debate is Families First on Immigration, which earlier this month sent letters to President George W. Bush and to leaders of the new Democratic controlled Congress urging them "to adopt a grand compromise on the divisive issue that includes strong border security, an amnesty for illegals already here who are relatives of citizens and an end to birthright citizenship."
Families First on Immigration, which claims to be advancing what they call religiously grounded positions on immigration, has some very familiar names attached to it, including former Republican Party presidential hopeful Gary Bauer, who heads up a group called American Values; former Bush advisor to Catholic voters, Deal Hudson of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture; and Paul Weyrich, who is widely considered one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement and the head of the Free Congress Foundation.
"We weren't surprised that leaders of the religious right finally got into the game," Devin Burghart, the program director of the Building Democracy Initiative at the Chicago, Illinois-based Centre for New Community, told IPS. "The organisation is trying to stake out a more moderate position than the Minutemen and other extremist anti-immigration organisations, and it is using a religious frame to try and woo supporters."
"While the language the group is using is more moderate sounding -- touting a compromise solution to the problem -- its anti-immigrant positions are quite radical," Burghart added. "And although they claim to be in line with traditional religious teachings, they seem to be ignoring much of the Bible, particularly passages about welcoming strangers."
"It's a disingenuous attempt to appear to be not anti-Latino while at the same time pandering to their right-wing base," Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Centre's Intelligence Project, said in a recent interview. "These leaders are desperately trying to hold their coalition together that very likely cannot stay together."
Families First on Immigration has been brought together by Manuel Miranda, a longtime conservative activist and the former judicial nominations counsel to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Owing to his participation in what was then dubbed "Memogate" -- Miranda was accused of stealing internal Democratic memos off a Judiciary Committee computer server -- in 2004, he "had one foot in the political graveyard," The Hill reported in November 2005.
But he bounced back -- at least in the eyes of a number conservative inside-the-beltway groups -- by working to derail President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, and due to his advocacy of the so-called "nuclear option," a Republican Party-led parliamentary tactic aimed at stripping Senate Democrats of the right to filibuster the president's judicial nominees. (A Senate compromise made the use of a "nuclear option" moot.)
Miranda told IPS that, "We are asking the president to reopen the debate. We have been circulating a policy paper for comment and review called 'Good Stewards Good Neighbours.'"
The policy paper will definitely "add something to the debate," he said, but lamented that
the "Democratic-controlled congress doesn't seem eager to address immigration."
Miranda said that the Minutemen, a vigilante group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, was not currently a "part of the coalition," but "if they agreed to our fundamental principles, they could join on."
At the heart of the Families First on Immigration proposal is the elimination of birthright citizenship which conservative columnist and radio talk show host Jane Chastain has termed the United States' "dirty little secret."
The most abhorrent aspect of Families First on Immigration's agenda is the removal of birthright citizenship, said Devin Burghart. "It is an attack on civil rights in general and on the 14th amendment specifically, which is a cornerstone of our democracy."
According to Burghart, an activist/researcher who has been tracking developments around immigration for several years, Families First on Immigration "is hungry for new members and hopes to tap into a new funding stream. They saw how successful the Minuteman Political Action Committee was in raising money and they hope to strike while the iron is hot."
The organisation appears to be a "bridge group' said Burghart, "aimed at bridging the gap between the hard core anti-immigration movement and the religious right."
In terms of the issues that it is raising, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mark Potek believes that it is unlikely that the group will have any "chance in a Democratic controlled congress."
However, while the group may not have an immediate impact visa via legislation, it will no doubt try to "inject immigration issues into the heart of 2008 presidential campaign," said Burghart. If it is able to accomplish that, it will be seen as a success."
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.