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

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."

"These are the lives of real people and according to the CBO can really help our economy," Salguero said. "Dr. King once said, 'Justice delayed is often justice denied.'" Moore said he was "disappointed," but that he reserved hope "the House will pass legislation that reflects the principles we care about in fixing this broken system of amnesty by inaction and injustice by neglect." Rodriguez said that "by delaying passage of CIR, Republicans in the house sacrificed political courage and long term viability on the altar of short term political expediency."

Rodriguez said his political message to House Republicans on July 24 will be simple: "Do you want to alienate the most faithful voting constituency supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 election? If we had 78 percent of evangelicals supporting Mitt Romney, that is the base of the base. Do you alienate that in order to acquiesce to parts of the party that don't speak to the future of the country, but suffer from cultural myopia, sacrificing the very viability of the Republican Party?"

Immigration backers like Karl Rove warn that Republicans will struggle to win presidential elections without greater Hispanic support. But there are potential repercussions at the state level, too. Democratic strategists are lining up to take advantage of the fallout if a bill fails. Jeremy Bird, the field director for Obama's reelection campaign, is working on a push to take advantage of changing demographics and political allegiances to turn Texas blue. "People of faith support a fair pathway to citizenship -- many Texans can see the broken immigration system's impact on other families in their own congregations," said Bird, a former Harvard Divinity School student. "This is one more issue where the Republican Party in Texas says one thing but their actions speak differently - opposing common sense immigration reform is completely out of line with the evangelical teachings I grew up with in the Southern Baptist church."

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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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