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

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.

The report's authors noted one other fascinating source of influence: Fox News. Evangelical Republicans and non-Republicans were equally likely to oppose a path to citizenship, but disciples of Hannity and other "fair and balanced" shows felt the most strongly:

Support for Immigration Reform Among Evangelicals Who Do and Don't Watch Fox News

The same doesn't seem to be true of evangelical leaders. Pastors at conservative Christian churches and the heads of evangelical organizations have been among the most vocal advocates for reform.

"I would not conclude that rank-and-file evangelicals are in a different place on immigration," Jones said. "But they may have less intense feelings about it than the leadership does. This issue is fairly low on the white evangelical priority list."

Salguero suggested it might be a question of education and communication. "If there’s any divergence, it’s in how much [congregants] know about this issue. As people get more acquainted with the issue, there has been a massive conversion among evangelicals in the pew."

"White evangelicals have real concerns about the cultural changes, along with economic concerns about jobs and wages."

Church involvement in immigration reform has been important in Washington, but increasingly, it's important for the congregations themselves: Among Hispanic Americans, evangelicals are the fastest growing religious group. In general, white evangelicals and minorities tend to have different political priorities—and as the demographics of the faith change, these differences will come into even greater relief.

"White evangelicals have real concerns about the cultural changes, along with economic concerns about jobs and wages," Jones said. In the survey, 56 percent said they felt like immigrants are a burden on America, and roughly 40 percent disagreed that immigrants mostly take unwanted jobs. "At the same time, the real growth among evangelicals in the South is going to be among Latinos. The very same people that are causing changes to happen in their community are the people they’re looking to bring in religiously."

And in the Latino community, it seems like immigration will to continue be a priority. "Hispanic evangelicals are really impacted by a lack of reform," Salguero said. "There's a sense of urgency in tenor, tone, and motivation. If there is any difference [in perspectives on reform], it is some proximity to the issue."

That's the interesting thing about polling people through a religious lens: It's nearly impossible to tell whether faith, or living close to the border, or being Hispanic, or hearing stories about "anchor babies" on Fox News every night makes them feel a certain way about immigration. But to a limited extent, researchers can create theories about why people hold certain beliefs, and in this case, it looks like being evangelical matters less than being white, voting Republican, and relying on one, "fair and balanced" network for news.