Why Christian leaders put aside differences to push immigration reform (+video)

Over 250 evangelical leaders arrive on Capitol Hill Tuesday to urge Congress to pass immigration reform. Churches have been conspicuous in their support of immigration reform.

By , Correspondent

Two weeks ago, the Rev. Luis Cortés stood outside the White House after he and other faith leaders came to town to talk about immigration reform.

Tuesday morning, the same scene will play out on Capitol Hill, as over 250 evangelical pastors from 25 states meet with their members of Congress to urge them to take action on immigration reform. 

With House Republicans safe in their seats and Senate Republicans in line to make gains this fall, the chances for any movement on immigration reform before the midterm elections looks dim. But religious leaders around the country don't appear willing to take "no" for an answer.

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Though various denominations often don't see eye to eye on contentious social matters such as same-sex marriage and abortion, legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration system has overwhelmingly drawn them together.

"It is the first and only political issue in this country where we all agree," Mr. Cortés told reporters on April 15.

Support from the pulpit for America's undocumented immigrants is hardly new. The sanctuary movement of the 1980s put pressure on politicians to take in immigrants fleeing the civil wars of Central America. Some say the movement played a role in the Reagan administration's decision to push for the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted legal status to some 3 million people.

Today, immigrants are becoming increasingly integral members of shrinking American churches, and that has given the push for immigration reform a different kind of urgency.

"Immigrants are really changing the face of the religious landscape in the United States," says the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America.

Data from the 2010 census show that of the 43 million people in America people born outside the country, 74 percent identified as Christian. In addition, more than two-thirds of the country's 52 million Latinos are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.

Amid a decline in US Christianity, a church in Columbus, Ohio, boasts 9,000 members, 28 percent of whom are immigrants and refugees from 104 nations, notes Granberg-Michaelson in his recently released book, "From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church."

Those changing demographics are not lost on leaders.

"There are cynics that will tell you in many cases some of the groups that are speaking out now on immigration reform are competing for new members of their flock," says John Carlson, associate professor of religious studies at Arizona State University in Tempe.

That may be partly true, he says, but within multiple denominations "you've got all sort of theological and ethical traditions and foundational concepts that are concerned with the stranger in one's midst."

While religious groups long have advocated for immigrants, the immigration debate has given focus to their efforts. Leaders have formed coalitions with other immigration reform supporters, gone on hunger strikes, waved protest signs, and, more recently, held services along a stretch of the US-Mexico border fence in Arizona.

At that April 1 outdoor mass next to the border fence between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of the Boston Archdiocese and a delegation of bishops called attention to people who have died trying to cross the border.

Religious leaders often describe the deaths, which most often happen in harsh desert terrain during the scorching summer months, as a humanitarian crisis that has resulted from a flawed immigration system.

"We know the border is lined with unmarked graves," Cardinal O'Malley said. "They call them illegal aliens. We are here to say they are not forgotten. They are our neighbors. Our brothers. Our sisters."

In 2010, Catholic leaders banded together with Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other leaders to urge Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the controversial "papers, please" law intended to curb illegal immigration. The bill became law. 

Religious communities that pay no attention to immigrant worshippers and their families will continue to shrink, says Granberg-Michaelson.

"The future of the church in America is not going to be tied to aging white Anglo folks who have been faithful in the past," he adds.

With more immigrants a fixture in congregations, "they are no longer just statistics," he adds. "These are people whose stories get known, people whose faith and commitment to family is real and compelling, and families get separated by deportation and end up in all these terrible and tragic circumstances."

Some 2 million immigrants who lacked legal status, including many from families that include US citizens, have been deported under the Obama administration. Faith leaders repeatedly have urged the president to curtail deportations and use his executive powers to revise immigration laws.

Obama has yet to acquiesce. But the Associated Press has reported that he is considering such a move.

Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the number of attendees. Over 250 members of the clergy attended the meeting.

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