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WASHINGTON - The Department of Homeland Security says it may seek changes in a provision pushed by Utah Sen. Bob Bennett that would shield churches from criminal liability for letting illegal immigrants volunteer for religious work.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo claims Homeland Security officials share his grave concerns that the provision, which Bennett backed at the behest of the LDS Church, would allow extremist groups to harbor terrorists
Tancredo, a strong advocate for immigration reform, said in a letter to Bennett released this week that the rider the senator pushed could allow radical groups which may be terrorists fronts to harbor illegal immigrants.
The creation of this loophole will have profoundly negative consequences for our national security, Tancredo said in the letter.
Bennett, an LDS Church member whose office did not return calls Tuesday, has said the provision does not prevent officials from detaining suspects or enforcing immigration laws.
Bennett's office previously said that he consulted with House and Senate judiciary committees and with Homeland Security officials before inserting the exemption in the bill, an agricultural measure passed by Congress and signed by President Bush on Nov. 10.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said in a statement that the department knew the language was in the law, but he did not say whether DHS was aware of the language before the bill became law.
Knocke added, "The administration is working closely with Senator Bennett to see if revisions to the language might be necessary to better meet the provision's intent and eliminate any doubt about security vulner- abilities."
Knocke did not respond to further e-mailed questions.
Meanwhile, David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a former general counsel to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says the part of the law that Bennett is amending is "such an unimportant part of our legal arsenal" that he doesn't see it as opening much of a loophole.
"It would take one small arrow out of a quiver in that setting," Martin said, noting the U.S. Attorney's Office may have to use other "ancillary" provisions to charge someone. "Realistically, it seems to me it's not a big blow in the struggle against terrorism."
An LDS Church spokesman says the provision is a narrow exception to the immigration act [that] allows people of all faiths to fulfill their religious obligations, such as missions.
The law permits churches to use the volunteer services of their undocumented members by insulating the churches from criminal sanctions for doing so, said spokesman Dale Bills.
The provision says that religious organizations that encourage, invite, call, allow or enable an alien who is present in the United States to perform the vocation of minister or missionary is not breaking the law as long as the organization isn't paying for more than the person's room, board, travel, medical assistance or other living expenses.
Tancredo has introduced a bill that would strike that language from the law.