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BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Evangelical Christian leaders took up a bully pulpit on Thursday to call for a "humane" overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in response to tough crackdowns on illegal immigrants enacted by Alabama and other states.
"Because I'm a Christian I believe in comprehensive, common-sense, humane immigration policy," the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the New York-based National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told a conference of evangelical leaders in Birmingham.
"Hospitality is not at the margins of scripture. Jesus wasn't kidding around when he said, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me,'" Salguero said at the G92 South Immigration Conference at Samford University.
Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have all passed "omnibus" immigration crackdowns since Arizona blazed the trail in 2010 with a law requiring police to check the status of all those they arrested and suspected of being in the country illegally -- a measure since blocked by a court.
The conference, whose name is derived from the 92 references in the Old Testament to "ger," Hebrew for stranger or immigrant, brought together evangelical Christians, legal experts and ethicists "to respond to immigration issues in a biblical way."
"We are called to welcome the stranger, that's what scripture tells us. We're not asking people to break the law, we're asking to reform a broken law," Salguero said of federal immigration policies. "It's a complex, complicated issue, but its not unsolvable."
Alabama's immigration law, passed in June, requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason, among other measures.
Parts were blocked by a U.S. Appeals court, including a provision that permits the state to require public schools to determine the legal residency of children upon enrollment. But the court left most of the law untouched.
The state law "pretty clearly was designed to make life unlivable and enlists all Alabamians in making life unlivable" for illegal immigrants, said David Smolin, a professor of constitutional law as Samford's Cumberland School of Law who addressed the conference. "It's clearly a test case, to push to see how far states can go."
President Barack Obama made a campaign promise in 2008 to push through a comprehensive immigration overhaul, tightening border and workplace enforcement, and easing a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants who paid fines, learned English and went to the back of the line, but has failed to deliver it.
Alabama Republicans who support the state's immigration law say it will help create jobs for legal residents by driving out undocumented workers and their families, pegged at 75,000 to 160,000 people by the Pew Hispanic Center.
While the Alabama Legislature is considering modifying its law - after gaffes including the arrests last year of two foreign autoplant workers legally present in the state - a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said the governor had no intention of repealing it.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the conference "there are about half a million Hispanic Americans" who are Southern Baptists, about 40 percent of whom are in the country illegally. Fifty-nine percent of them are from Mexico, he said.
"This should not surprise us. There is no other border in the world with as big a gap in living standards on opposite sides as there are on the U.S. and Mexican sides of our border," he added.
The forum in Birmingham was the second in what organizers say will be a series of evangelical church conferences on immigration around the nation.
Editing By Tim Gaynor