The major Western religions require the faithful to warmly welcome strangers into their communities, but the welcome mat wasn't always out during recent debates about immigration, some state religious leaders say.
To counter the insensitivity, members of some major religious groups recently formed the Kentucky Faith Communities Immigration Coalition.
Immigrants have been accused of taking jobs from Kentuckians, of destroying American culture and of being criminals, said the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.
"They are objectified and not seen as persons worthy of dignity and basic respect," she said. "It's racist and xenophobic; that's our larger concern."
The new group's first project is a petition drive calling for Kentuckians "to support laws that affirm (immigrants') dignity, preserve their families and acknowledge the value of their presence among us."
About 2,000 signatures have been gathered so far, mostly in Lexington, Louisville and and more urban areas of the state. Signers have included Jews, Methodists, independent Christians, Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics and Presbyterians, among others, according to coalition members.
The Rev. Patrick Dela hanty, interim director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, hopes the coalition's role eventually will include educating the public on immigration issues and providing speakers to maintain a balance at gatherings where immigration is discussed.
Religious leaders say the lack of civility toward immigrants was especially strong in the spring and summer, when committees of Congress and the Kentucky legislature held hearings on the issue.
The situation became highly emotional; instead of solving the problems that cause illegal immigration, people were targeting the immigrants, Kemper said.
The focus was turned "in a hateful manner on folks who are just trying to support their families," she said, adding that some of the e-mails she has received on the issue are "pretty ugly."
Comments made on talk-radio programs were a special problem, said Richard Mitchell, a Quaker and a leader of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice:
"Everything they are saying is fear-based," Mitchell said. "People have to remember there are real people involved."
The coalition is forming "just to tell the legislature to have a compassionate attitude toward immigrants," he said.
The Kentucky Council of Churches has adopted an official position that the focus of immigration discussions should be on economic problems, not individuals, and that there must be clear policies for illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Delahanty said immigrants should be recognized for filling an economic need. He said the American birth rate is now too low to supply a sufficient work force. At the same time, economic and political conditions have become so bad in some other countries that law-abiding citizens are forced to leave.
"Most people don't want to give up their country," he said. "If they get desperate, they will."
Instead of welcoming needed workers, some Americans focus on the fact that a minority of the immigrants have entered the country illegally, Delahanty said. "The American people have a strong sense that when there is a law, it ought to be followed. They sense their government isn't dealing with that."
The coalition isn't proposing answers to immigration problems. It recognizes that "reasonable people can have different solutions to a problem," Delahanty said.
The group just wants less emotion and anger when the debate resumes after a presidential election in which the economy, not immigration, has been center stage.
The major-party presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, have been "pretty reasonable" on the issue, Delahanty said.
But even if national leaders go down the wrong road, the faithful will get their directions from a higher power.
"Within the religious community, our traditions tell us to be hospitable, to welcome the stranger, to do so in a way that is kind and compassionate," Kemper said.