Why Evangelicals are the new partners for immigration reform
Advocates for immigration reform should seek support from an unlikely source – evangelical Christians. Their political agenda is broadening as Hispanic congregants – documented and undocumented – increase and pastors speak of immigration as a religious concern.
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The Evangelical Immigration Table, founded in June 2012 by nine heads of evangelical organizations, is networking with evangelical leaders from across the spectrum to support immigration reform. Founders include the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a large umbrella group representing many denominations and associations; Richard Land, an outspoken conservative and Southern Baptist leader; and Jim Wallis, bestselling author and leader of the left-leaning social justice organization Sojourners.Skip to next paragraph
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In June 2012, the Table released a wide-reaching, seven-point plan for immigration reform that included a call for secure borders, protection of family unity, and a path toward legal status or citizenship. It also left out many of the thorniest details, such as what steps a pathway to legal status would include and who would be eligible.
The week after the presidential election, the Table sent letters to President Obama and congressional leaders asking for a meeting within the first 92 days of the president's new term to move forward reform legislation. Change is clearly afoot.
Of course, evangelical voters are not monolithic, and their views on illegal immigration vary widely. Data from a 2010 Pew Research Center study suggest that grass-roots Evangelicals are divided, but a majority (54 percent) now favor policies that include some sort of pathway to citizenship.
This majority is likely to grow. Researcher Ruth Melkonian-Hoover's analysis of polling data suggests that white Evangelicals who worship alongside immigrants (she did not distinguish between legal and illegal) are less likely to view immigrants as a threat. When pastors preach positive messages about immigrants, congregants' opinions shift, and support for a path to legalization rises sharply.
Since the November election – heavily influenced by Hispanic voters – legislators have more political space to advocate for immigration reform. Some Republicans are joining the effort out of desire to reach Hispanics. Others who previously felt strong political pressure to avoid the issue now feel more freedom to advocate for reform.
Evangelical elites from across the ideological spectrum are beginning to come together to advocate for immigration reform. Millions of Americans in the pews may soon follow their lead, and, if so, wise legislators will pay attention.