WASHINGTON (BP) -- People brought into the United States illegally as children should not be treated in the same way as undocumented immigrants who entered as adults, a Southern Baptist public policy specialist told members of Congress.

Barrett Duke of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also testified that the immigration reform bill approved by the Senate needs some improvement.

Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy, was one of the witnesses at a July 23 hearing before a House of Representatives subcommittee. The panel considered the status of those whose parents brought them to this country as illegal immigrants while they were children.

He commended the panel for viewing children in such cases differently than adults.

"These are people who did not make a conscious decision to break the nation's immigration laws," Duke told the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. "They were brought here as minors."

The United States "should not hold these children accountable for the choices their parents made," Duke said.

Not all undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors should qualify, he told the subcommittee. "Those who are of good moral character and demonstrate a desire to make their own way through life should be given a chance to come out of the shadows and join in the full life and vitality of our nation," Duke said.

The parents, however, should be held accountable through "appropriate forms of restitution and penalty," he told the representatives. Their accountability for breaking the law as adults should be addressed through broad immigration reform, he said.

"It is my hope and prayer that Congress will see this as one piece of a bigger plan that meets the principles of sound immigration reform," Duke said. "We can honor the rule of law, secure our borders and chart a just and compassionate way forward for the millions of other undocumented immigrants living peacefully and productively in our midst."

The ERLC has called for reform that includes security at the border and in the workplace, as well as a path toward citizenship for those who qualify and are willing to pay fines and to meet other requirements. Broad immigration reform is needed, the ERLC and many other organizations say, because the lack of enforcement of current law has resulted in an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States illegally.

The Senate approved in late June an immigration bill, but some conservative Republicans have sharply criticized that measure, especially its approach to border security.

In response to questioning by Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative Republican from Ohio, Duke said the ERLC has taken no position on the Senate bill.

"We've simply said we believe it's a good step forward, but it needs some repair, it needs some work, and we're looking to the House to help address some issues," Duke told Jordan.

Most Southern Baptists, including himself, "believe we need to make sure that the border is secure before citizenship is possible," he said. "But we do believe that we do also need to address the circumstances of these 11 million and that it needs to be done as a package in order to make sure that all of the needs of our nation and of these undocumented immigrants are addressed."

Duke acknowledged to Jordan, "It does concern me that we may not get to the place where we secure the border, and I'm looking to you to make sure that there is a mechanism in place that assures us that the border is secured before permanent legal status" is implemented.

About 2.1 million people who were brought to the United States illegally before they were 16 years of age could be immediately eligible for conditional legal status or become eligible in the future, Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute testified at the hearing.

Of this population's four subgroups analyzed in a 2010 study she coauthored, the largest at 43 percent was school-aged children who would become eligible by earning a high school diploma or the equivalent and completing post-high school education or military service requirements, she said.

Republicans on the subcommittee and testifying before the panel expressed opposition to granting legal status to undocumented immigrants based on their family relation to children they brought to this country illegally. Some Democrats, however, favored legalizing the parents.

"Legalizing only the DREAMers is not enough," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D.-Ill. "It would not be enough to satisfy ... the hunger for legality in the immigrant community."

Undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children are referred to as DREAMers based on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a congressional proposal that has yet to gain approval.

In June 2012, the Obama administration announced an executive action that immediately permitted DREAMers to apply to be free from the threat of deportation and to seek authorization to work. The order, which largely acts as a temporary fulfillment of the DREAM Act, postponed action for two years against undocumented immigrants who meet the requirements and provides the opportunity for them to renew that status.

In 2011, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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