The Evangelical Slide on Immigration Reform

Support for pathways to citizenship has dropped among white, born-again Christians in the last year. What happened?
Sergio Moraes/Reuters

In the early months of last year, long before yet another cycle of immigration-reform boom and bust began, 56 percent of white evangelicals said in a survey that they supported a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the United States illegally. A little more than 12 months later, the very same group of white evangelicals are less sure: Only 48 percent now say they support this kind of policy reform, according to a callback survey published this week by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. What changed?

For one thing, people seem to be more supportive of giving immigrants legal residency rather than full citizenship. Some parts of "the community are willing to accept legalization as an intermediary path ... so it doesn’t kill immigration reform," said Gabriel Salguero, a New York City pastor and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. He sees the change as a sign of pragmatism in the face of Washington's stagnation. "I think all American evangelicals are frustrated with the lack of movement in Congress," he said. 

Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and one of the authors of the survey, agreed. "What the data shows over the last year is that there is a permeable boundary between these two categories for some evangelicals," he said. "There's slippage from supporting paths to citizenship to something a little bit less than that." 

Although this trend of slippage is happening most among white evangelicals, closely followed by minority evangelicals, it's actually true of all Christian denominations. This table shows the drop-off in support for citizenship for illegal immigrants across denominations:


Support for a Path to Citizenship Among Religious Groups

Source: PRRI/Brookings Religion, Values, and Immigration Callback Panel, 2014

This is all the more remarkable because these numbers came from a callback survey—meaning the very same people who gave their opinions in 2013 gave them again in 2014. In general, Americans feel pretty strongly about the issue: In both surveys, roughly a quarter of of respondents felt that immigration reform should be the country's top policy priority, and another 47 percent said it should be among the highest. In general, there have been few other shifts in attitudes toward immigration in the past year, which hints that this slight downward trend among evangelicals might be about more than frustration with Washington. 

One possibility is that lay born-again Christians' opinions are shaped by factors other than faith. Across the survey, race seemed to influence views on immigration, and the same was true among evangelicals. Fifty-four percent of minorities supported paths to citizenship, compared to 48 percent of their white counterparts. Evangelicals are also more likely to have conservative, Republican-leaning views than any other religious group—so it may be that the party, not the pastor, is the main source of influence here. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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