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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Pastor Roberto Miranda speaks at Congregacion Leon de Juda, an Evangelical church, on Dec. 2 in Boston. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes: '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.'

Most Congress-watchers have low expectations for America's legislative branch over the next two years, and with good reason. The 2012 election again showed a divided electorate, and political stalemate and partisan rancor abound in Washington.

Despite this difficult climate, political support is rapidly building in favor of legislation that has confounded presidents and Congresses since 1986: comprehensive immigration reform. Advocates trying to build a winning coalition for reform should seek support from an unlikely source – evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals have been a key Republican voting bloc for several decades. According to exit polls, about 1 in 4 voters in November's election was a white Evangelical, and they voted overwhelmingly Republican.

Although most Americans associate theologically conservative Christians with cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the evangelical political agenda is broadening. Immigration reform is one issue that has steadily gained momentum.

What might account for this change?

For one, pastors and religious leaders are talking more about the issue as a religious concern. Many scriptural passages relate to immigration – including the famous 40-year wilderness journey of the children of Israel to the Promised Land. But most evangelical churches and organizations have only recently begun to underscore the biblical connection to immigration.

New pro-immigrant movements are seeking to educate and activate evangelical clergy and voters by emphasizing themes of love, justice, and welcome for the stranger that resound throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Another factor that explains increasing awareness of immigrant issues is simple math.

Much like the nation, evangelicalism is becoming more ethnically diverse. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 13 percent of Hispanic Americans describe themselves as evangelical Protestants. Immigrant churches are growing rapidly, and many denominations have created new structures and leadership posts designed to serve Hispanic congregants. Immigration – including illegal immigration – touches the lives of many in the pews, and church leaders want to help.

Also, greater numbers of Evangelicals are worshiping alongside documented and undocumented immigrants, getting to know them and listening to their stories.

Perhaps the strongest sign of Evangelicals' advocacy is the emergence of new organizations and coalitions focusing on the issue.

In October 2011, Cedarville University, a conservative Christian college in Ohio, hosted the "G92" immigration conference. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for immigrant, ger, which appears 92 times in the Hebrew Bible, the conference has spawned a new movement designed to mobilize Christian college students to advocate on behalf of all immigrants. Leaders are planning half a dozen events across the country in 2013.

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.

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.

Even so, as religion writer Lisa Miller said in The Washington Post, the plan is "a document of exceptional accord among groups that rarely find themselves on the same side of anything."

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.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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