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

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."

Last year, the EIT composed a statement of principles that included "a path toward citizenship." The signatories included evangelical heavyweights from not just the policy and advocacy world, but also leaders not known for engaging in political issues, including evangelical author Margaret Feinberg, Pastor Max Lucado, and respected theologian Scot McKnight. It was, arguably, the most impressive, widely representative evangelical policy statement in modern American history. In the days leading up to a press event releasing the statement, Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, asked to be added to it. Something historic was happening in the church.

But it isn't just top-down pushes from national evangelical leaders, as is sometimes the case. A real grassroots movement has formed, and it was central to the passage of the Senate immigration bill. In surprisingly personal remarks, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told colleagues during committee mark-up of the bill that support from evangelical churches "made it possible for a guy like me to survive the emotional nature of this debate."

Through the EIT, the broader Bibles, Badges and Businesses for Immigration Reform (a project of the National Immigration Forum), and other efforts, hundreds of evangelical and faith rallies have taken place across the country in key states and districts in support of reform. During the July 4 Congressional recess, the EIT dispatched members to town-hall meetings to thank Republican senators who supported reform and to inform House members where evangelicals in their districts stand on the issue. EIT has bought ads in key states -- including Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina--thanking senators who voted for the Senate bill and asking the House to act. EIT member organizations, representing tens of millions of Americans, are mobilizing to write and call their representatives. And on July 24, EIT will hold a rally-and-lobby day on the Hill.

Pro-reform groups view these efforts as essential. "I don't think a House vote happens without evangelicals," Noorani said. "The only reason it happens is because evangelicals are engaged."

The evangelicals I spoke with know that the fate of reform, for now, lies in the hands of Republicans in the House. "The faith community has to create the moral space and political cover for politicians to do the right thing," Wallis said. But they insist this is not a partisan fight. Some are apprehensive about tension with Republicans, their traditional allies, and sounded concerned about the future of the party. GOP strategists can be forgiven for not trusting the warnings from progressives that failing to pass reform will doom them, but the same warnings are coming from conservative evangelicals.

Many of these leaders are sympathetic to Republicans' political situation, and they signaled flexibility on how the House moves forward. But they vowed not to accept inaction or a failure to include a path to citizenship. That's a practical stand, on one hand -- "Amnesty becomes a very easy slogan... [but] what we have now is amnesty," Moore said -- but more importantly for these leaders, inaction is morally inexcusable.

It is unclear whether the GOP will heed these warnings. Reports from the House Republican caucus meeting last week suggested they would not consider legislation resembling the Senate bill. A joint statement from House leadership following the meeting endorsed a "step-by-step" approach that would avoid a "single, massive, Obamacare-like bill." Evangelical reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Salguero called the statement "inertia masked as deliberation."

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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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