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

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.'"

Second, personal relationships have accelerated this movement. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, explained that as Hispanic populations have expanded in the Midwest, Southeast and Mountain West, churches like Willow Creek have had to grapple with the human aspect of the immigration problem. Evangelicals take anti-immigrant rhetoric personally, because they know hardworking, God-fearing immigrants in their churches and their neighborhoods.

Several national leaders bluntly asserted that many reform opponents are motivated by "nativist" sentiments, which they blamed Republicans in Congress for encouraging. Many evangelicals find it difficult to understand a "pro-family" politician who opposes reform that would recognize the dignity of immigrants and their families.

"The gulf between how religious leaders discuss immigrants as children of God and how many House Republicans talk about immigrants as criminals and gang-bangers has been noticed by many of my colleagues," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat. "A few of the Republicans who have quietly told me they are hoping we resolve the issue in a sensible, just way have told me the fact that evangelical preachers talk about immigrants and their families as human beings really got their attention."

Castro, whose San Antonio congressional district includes two of the largest megachurches in the country, hoped that evangelicals' commitment to missions might play a role as well. "[They are realizing] that the people they are trying to help in those countries are very similar to those who are seeking a better life in this country," he said.

Third, there is a practical motivation. "If they deport 11 million immigrants, they will be deporting the future of the American church," Wallis said -- the primary source of growth in the American evangelical church is immigrants. "Evangelicals have always been missionaries reaching out to new people," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "Since there are so many immigrants in our churches and denominations it is expected that we care about how they are treated." In a cultural landscape that provides evangelicals many reasons for pessimism, the energy provided by immigrants is cause for optimism.

***

The growth of pro-reform sentiment in the evangelical community began in earnest six years ago. In 2007, following his election as NAE president, Anderson made clear immigration was a priority for his term and began a two-year conversation with NAE leaders and pastors. In 2009, in what Noorani called a "watershed moment," the NAE released a consensus policy statement in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

Around the same time, Democrats in the White House and Congress began a concerted effort to form partnerships and relationships with the evangelical community. From White House officials like Cecilia Munoz and Valerie Jarrett to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats held dozens of meetings, lunches and off-the-record gatherings to build trust. Hybels' introduction before Obama's 2010 immigration speech -- a speech that even conservative evangelical opinion leader Richard Land applauded -- was in many ways a culmination of that effort. Today, Dr. Luis Cortes of the Hispanic evangelical group Esperanza noted, it's difficult to find major remarks from the president on immigration reform that did not mention the efforts of the faith community. Indeed, Obama or Vice President Biden have attended the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, hosted by Esperanza, each year since taking office.

Support for reform continued to build in the evangelical community as the Southern Baptist Convention -- the nation's largest, most conservative Protestant denomination -- passed a resolution in 2011 in support of a "path to legal status." Moore said he wrote the resolution at the request of pastors from Florida and Texas who were concerned about harassment and anti-immigrant rhetoric facing members of their communities. The measure stated that "[A]ny form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

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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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