ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—A Unitarian church in New Mexico sends supplies to the border for recent deportees. A coalition of church leaders gathers under a statue of colonial America religious figure Anne Hutchinson at the Massachusetts Statehouse to denounce immigration checks by police. A Methodist minister in Texas recites Isaiah 58:6, a passage about loosening the bonds of injustice, as she's thrown in jail after protesting alongside illegal immigrant students outside a U.S. senator's office.
As some states pass laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and federal lawmakers balk at passing any immigration reforms, religious leaders from various denominations are jumping into the debate. They're holding rallies, walking in the Arizona desert, gathering testimonies from immigrants. The leaders fast, get arrested, and sometimes put their own health on the line in an attempt to draw attention to what they see as inhumane treatment of immigrants and to the laws that target them.
"Some of us feel very strongly about this," said Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who was arrested last year with immigrant advocates in Arizona for protesting Arizona's much debated, tough immigration law. "It's a humanitarian issue."
From New York to Utah and across denominations, religious leaders have used their positions from the pulpit in an effort to influence legislation or rally church members in protest. Earlier this year, for example, more than 20 religious leaders and officials with church-operated charities in Alabama spoke out against a stringent new anti-immigration law that they said would block them from providing food, shelter and transportation to the poor.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Angela Herrera, an assistant minister with the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, helped organized her members and other religious leader in successful rallies against an effort by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez to overturn a state law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses.
And last year, St. Leo's Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y. sent Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., testimonies from more than 230 people asking for immigration reform. It was one of many Catholic churches around the country that pushed immigration reform.
"Immigration is a God event." said Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, the United Methodist pastor who was arrested outside of the offices of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas.
Many religious leaders point to immigration stories in the Bible as personal reflections that influence their calling to push immigration reform.
Christopher C. Hope, the reach-out now director of Pentecostal Tabernacle, a church located between Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Mass., said he often points out that Jesus and his family had to emigrate to Egypt from Israel to avoid death by King Herod, and God ordered the Israelites that "the stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you."
There's also a practical reason for churches to embrace immigrants and immigration reform: the influx has helped revive some churches.
Bishop Brian Greene, senior pastor of Pentecostal Tabernacle, saw his church grow from less than 50 members to close to 400 in 10 years after the church began recruiting immigrant students and scholars. The sojourner is a hot topic, he said.
Hope said the church helped convince the city of Cambridge and some Massachusetts schools and colleges to publicly support the DREAM act -- a stalled federal proposal that would allow illegal immigrant students a pathway to citizenship through college and military service.
But Greene said the church has to be careful since many of his members are legal immigrants who have gone through a long process to stay in the country, and they are now living apart from their families. He doesn't want to advocate too much on one side of an issue and risk alienating some members. "It's important to listen to both sides," he said.
Still, some advocates for tougher immigration restrictions say that the views of some religious leaders may run counter to those held by members of their congregations. They point to a 2009 Zogby poll that found that 64 percent of mainline Protestants support enforcement measures that encouraged illegal immigrants to return to their native countries, while only 24 percent support conditional legalization.
Smith said that shouldn't matter.
"Just because you're in the majority doesn't make it right," said Smith, who recently shared her work among immigrants with a group of United Methodists at an Albuquerque conference. "There are laws but there are also laws that are unjust. I'm trying to communicate the love of God. So if I see that a law is not communicating the love of God, I will speak out."
Greene said the public popularity of any political stance doesn't mean it triumphs God's word. "To me, it's about, what does the word say'?" he said.
During a recent church service at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, member Kristine Olson, 59, hosted a table with books on the borderlands and collected supplies for immigrants who had recently been deported. Olson said she and other members were planning a trip to Mexico to personally give hygiene products to the immigrants who had been separated from family. "Our way of worship is through service," she said.
Smith said it's important to meet church members where they are in their faith and not push too hard.
"But I am called to do this," said Smith. "And I have to be obedient to God's call."