Is Immigration Reform Dead? Not If Evangelicals Can Do Anything About It

Socially conservative Christians find themselves in a strange position: allied with Democrats and demanding Republicans take action.
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President Obama and Pastor Bill Hybels speak before a speech on comprehensive immigration reform at American University in Washington on July 1, 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

The path to immigration reform has been long and divisive, and it is difficult to see the finish line even now. Despite passing the Senate with 68 votes, reform is now tied up in a House. Speaker John Boehner says he won't pass a bill without a majority of the Republican caucus, and he says the chamber will write its own bill rather than take up the Senate's. Even if that is successful, the bills will have to be reconciled in conference. In short, it's a hard slog ahead, with no quick finish in sight.

For evangelical Christians, this type of drawn-out, hard-fought legislative battle is nothing new. But for a diverse coalition of evangelical leaders and congregants, it is new to be aligned with Democrats, and prodding Republicans to do what they believe is the right -- and moral -- thing. The reform camp is relying on evangelicals to help pressure the right into agreeing to changes, and leadership of the Evangelical Immigration Table -- a group that is organizing evangelicals who support immigration reform -- will meet with House Republican leadership on July 24 to state their case, according to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference "Evangelicals have the opportunity to be the conscience of the nation," Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me.

Based on interviews with evangelical leaders, political strategists, and policymakers, this is an inside look at how the evangelical movement became a major backer of immigration reform, how it turned traditional political allegiances on their head, and what the future holds.

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The West Wing wanted to have a faith leader introduce President Obama's major address on immigration reform at American University in June 2010. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, but it was clear that this effort would require conservative constituencies to push recalcitrant Republicans -- especially in the Senate -- along. So when the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was asked to recommend an evangelical to introduce the president, Bill Hybels was the clear choice (full disclosure: I served in the office at the time).

Hybels is the pastor of the 12,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, and he's also one of the most respected voices in church leadership around the world, with a leadership-and-training network including thousands of churches worldwide. And, for moral and practical reasons, he and his wife Lynne have long been strong supporters of comprehensive reform.

Hybels explained to me that his interest in immigration reform was at first a result of the makeup of his congregation. In 2003, Willow Creek started a Spanish-language service to accommodate their congregants, and soon learned that as many as nine out of 10 participants were undocumented. "That led us on a journey where we searched the scripture and we asked, 'What does God say about immigrants and the strangers within our gates?'" Hybels said. He concluded that the immigration system was broken, and that existing laws were "not serving the purpose for which they had been established."

Hybels was convinced reform was necessary, and so when he received the call from the White House, he left his vacation early and made his way to American University. "I wanted to send the signal that there are tens of millions of serious and intelligent Christ-followers in this country who actually believe we need to forge a better way forward for those who are undocumented," Hybels explained.

Before the speech, Hybels met the president backstage briefly, and Obama thanked him for leaving his vacation early to make it to the event. Chuckling, Hybels recalled that he and Obama asked each other the same question at virtually the same time: "Are you serious about this?"

They both laughed. Hybels said, "I'm dead serious about it." Obama replied, "Great -- so am I." They then shared a brief moment of prayer, and Hybels walked up to the podium to introduce the president of the United States.

***

At a time when many believe the influence of faith is waning in American life, the White House's top second-term legislative priorities -- immigration reform, gun control, climate-change legislation, nuclear non-proliferation -- all depend on an active religious lobby. On immigration progressives and Democratic strategists embrace, to a striking degree, the central role evangelicals will have to play in any successful attempt at reform.

Evangelicals are no fringe demographic. They account for about a quarter of the American population and are increasingly diverse racially, ethnically, and geographically. Though they generally lean conservative for theological and cultural reasons, there are evangelicals across the political spectrum. By definition, evangelicalism -- like faith in general -- defies political categories.

This is clear when you look at the Evangelical Immigration Table. The EIT represents organizations ranging from the Rev. Jim Wallis' progressive-leaning Sojourners group to the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The EIT also includes the National Association of Evangelicals, the moderate umbrella organization for evangelical denominations and churches; Bread for the World, a leading evangelical anti-hunger organization; the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, a moderate-to-progressive evangelical coalition led by the Rev. Gabriel Salguero; Liberty University Law School Dean Mat Staver; top denominational heads; seminary presidents; and dozens of other national figures.

These groups did not always support immigration reform. Samuel Rodriguez told me that in 2005, the evangelical support of immigration reform consisted mostly of Hispanic evangelicals. After that effort failed in 2006, Hispanic and other pro-reform evangelicals began to build support across the evangelical community. Now, says Rodriguez, evangelicals of all races are no longer the tail of pro-reform forces -- they are leading the effort.

One person responsible for this change is Matthew Soerens. As a staff member of World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals' development arm, Soerens has traveled the country speaking at churches and hosting seminars where he, in his words, "gently reminds the local church about what the Scriptures say about the topic of immigration." When Willow Creek was working through the issue, it called on Soerens. Hybels praises Soerens as "one of the brightest minds on the issue" of immigration, and someone who has "sound theology." He and his World Relief colleague Jenny Yang (who is similarly well-respected in evangelical and pro-reform circles) co-wrote what has become the signature book for evangelicals on the topic, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate. In our conversation, he casually mentioned that the Hebrew word for immigrant, ger, occurs in the Old Testament alone 92 times, a sign of its importance. Immigration, Soerens says, was long a "blind spot" for evangelicals, but not anymore.

In my interviews with Soerens and other leaders, three main pillars of evangelical support for "compassionate, just" immigration reform emerged. The first is theology and scripture. For evangelicals, the Bible is not simply a series of books full of suggestions and nice thoughts, but the foundation for how they try to live their life, relate to God, and relate to other human beings. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25 that "whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me," has clear implications for the immigration debate for evangelicals. "How we treat immigrants is literally how we treat Jesus," said Jim Wallis. Dr. Russell Moore, who was elected as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ERLC in March, says that support for reform reflects "an activated evangelical conscience" that rejects worldviews that dismiss "embryos and fetuses" just as it "cares about those that society would dismiss as 'anchor babies.'"

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Michael Wear is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign and worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

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