Church’s ‘A Closer Look’ on immigration series addresses state, federal laws

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted May 7, 2024

During The Episcopal Church’s May 3, 2024, webinar, “A Closer Look: State Immigration Laws,” participants learned how immigration laws operate at state and federal levels. Photo: Screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] Under the United States’ constitution-based federal system, federal laws apply to the entire country, while state laws only apply to the state where they’re passed. Because federal laws preempt state laws, state and federal governments can have differing statutes on the books.

Immigration law is one area where state and federal laws can sometimes collide. The number of forcibly displaced people, including migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, has increased dramatically over the last 50 years, with the majority of people falling into one or more categories seeking entry into the United States, according to data compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In 1975, 174,200 people worldwide were forcibly displaced; as of 2022, the number stands at 10,166,900 people. In response to the high number of migrants trying to enter the United States, federal, state and local governments have enacted, modified and repealed immigration laws.

To help Episcopalians understand how immigration laws operate at state and federal levels, The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations hosted the second in a virtual three-part series on immigration on May 3. Sixty-nine people attended the hourlong “A Closer Look: State Immigration Laws” webinar.

Watch the entire webinar here.

David Spicer, an immigration policy adviser with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, provided a historical overview of U.S. immigration laws and how several have been passed to restrict the number of migrants arriving from various countries, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

“Immigration law is incrementally developed [as seen] from different laws enacted by Congress. It is a unique melding of international and domestic law,” Spicer said. “A lot of what we’re seeing now for humanitarian relief, refugee status, asylum … are directly influenced by international law.”

Spicer highlighted the House of Representatives’ Secure the Border Act of 2023, or HR 2, which calls for hiring more Customs and Border Protection agents and resuming construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The act includes provisions addressing the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to partner with nongovernmental organizations and to provide them funding. The legislation hasn’t yet made it to the Senate floor.

“It’s relevant to certain Catholic ministries across the country, but it’s also applicable to ministries of other denominations and traditions, and even secular organizations as well, that provide services to newcomers,” Spicer said.

In March, Texas’ Senate Bill 4 immigration law, which grants officials permission to jail and prosecute suspected undocumented migrants without authorization, was enforced. Hours later, a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel blocked Texas from enforcing SB4.

The state attempted to enforce SB4 after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the Catholic-affiliated nonprofit Annunciation House in El Paso of human smuggling. A district judge in El Paso blocked Paxton’s efforts to subpoena the migrant shelter itself. Annunciation House coordinates shelter placements in cooperation with Customs and Border Patrol, the federal agency that arranges transportation for the migrants from detention facilities to migrant shelters throughout El Paso.

The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, which operates a community shelter at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, and the Catholic Diocese of El Paso both have openly protested threats to close Annunciation House and enforce SB4.

Spicer said the attempts to subpoena Annunciation House are an example of Texas “potentially seeking to revoke civil privileges.”

“The impacts of state intervention on communities are myriad,” he said.

Interpretation of proposed and enacted immigration laws is also important, Spicer said. For example, under Title 8, assisting migrants in some cases is illegal. In 2017, humanitarian aid workers in Arizona faced criminal misdemeanor and felony charges for providing food, water, beds and clean clothes to undocumented immigrants.

“Some people, including sitting members of Congress, have interpreted that statute to apply to the sorts of ministries that Catholic and Episcopal churches engage in with respect to migrants,” he said. “Just by virtue of providing a warm meal or a shower to a migrant who recently entered the country, some would interpret those activities as a violation of U.S.C. [Title 8 subsection] 1234.”

Webinar participants were able to ask questions using Zoom’s chat function. A few people asked how communities can welcome migrants despite limited infrastructure and services. Spicer said having a strong collaboration between local, state and federal governments is crucial, especially when working with shelter and services programs.

Another person asked how The Episcopal Church and the USCCB can collaborate on immigration reform. Spicer suggested USCCB’s grassroots Justice for Immigrants campaign could work together with the Office of Government Relations to engage with congressional offices to facilitate policy changes more often.

For individuals and congregations wanting to get involved, Spicer recommended volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The Episcopal Church has a long history of advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. Episcopalians interested in learning more about the church’s advocacy efforts can visit the Episcopal Public Policy Network’s website.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at