Evangelicals May Be Key to Immigration Reform

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Carl M. Cannon - March 26, 2013

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“Evangelical groups [help] us to see this issue not only as a statistical one,” he said, “but also as a human one -- and that’s a great contribution.”

Evangelicals are also helping in more material ways. Richard Land’s group, for instance, is running ads in South Carolina supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose efforts at finding a comprehensive solution have alienated part of the Republican’s conservative base in his state, where Graham is up for re-election this year. Graham himself has termed the evangelicals’ efforts to rally support around him -- and immigration legislation -- “a game changer.”

Two prominent evangelicals, Columbia businessman Hal Stevenson and Baptist pastor Jim Goodroe, recently co-authored an op-ed in a South Carolina newspaper headlined “Faith commends a kinder look at immigrants in our midst.”

Of the large 2010 freshman Republican class, 15 members are practicing Southern Baptists, Land points out. One of them, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, now chairs an immigration subcommittee. Democrats credit him for humanizing the issue.

Gowdy hasn’t yet embraced the citizenship pathway, but church leaders in his district are providing cover if he does.

“Reform must include a tough but fair path to citizenship that holds these aspiring Americans accountable but also helps them realize the full rights and responsibilities that make our country a beacon of freedom,” stated the op-ed by Stevenson and Goodroe in the Charleston Post and Courier.

The authors also make an economic case: “The Palmetto State’s economy features a growing high-tech sector and a booming tourism industry, and immigrants are an important part of both,” they wrote. “Taking away just those without papers would sacrifice $1.8 billion in economic activity and more than 12,000 jobs.”

For Republicans, another argument in favor of changing their tone on immigration is the simple exigencies of electoral politics. If Mitt Romney had garnered the same percentage of Latino votes as George W. Bush did, he’d have carried Virginia and Florida, and been very close to President Obama in the popular vote.

In the aftermath, party leaders recognize how the stronger part of the base can help with major weaknesses.

“The issue of immigration reform has been a roadblock to our success to large swaths of the Hispanic community,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. “Clearly a large part of our base is the evangelical community, but in the same way we need to grow our presence there as well. In many ways, we can take our strength for granted.”

The evangelical community can provide an important infrastructure when it comes to garnering support for immigration reform. Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime reform advocate who is working on legislation in the House, said the churches have the microphone, the pulpit (literally) and the constituency.

“In 2009, when I and others believed the president was not working as he should [on immigration legislation], we visited over 30 cities, and evangelicals opened their doors,” he said. “How do you do this if you don’t have an NAACP of sorts for immigrants?”

None of this is to suggest that a consensus yet exists on this issue among devout Christians, among voters generally, or among Republicans. One naysayer is Iowa Rep. Steve King, a prominent social conservative and vocal opponent of amnesty to illegal immigrants.

““I think they should go back and study their Scripture a little deeper,” said King. “I think they should go back and study some of the translations from Greek and Hebrew: When they say, ‘I was a stranger from a foreign land and you took me in,’ the Greek word for that means ‘invited guest’ not a stranger, not an alien, not someone who was by law prohibited from being there, but an invited guest.”

Yet even the Iowa congressman, a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014, concedes that the larger Christian message has broad resonance.

“Faithful people -- pastors and priests, in particular -- they have a great heart and a soul for the people, and that ministry doesn’t know borders,” he said. “So it’s hard for them to see why borders need to be enforced.”

The evangelical push for reform isn’t new, and their previous efforts were not enough to prop up a bill that failed in 2007, despite having initial support from President Bush and Sen. John McCain and (but not Sen. Barack Obama).

But the landscape is different now -- and evangelical voters know they have some credibility because they did not desert the Republican Party in 2012. They know the GOP needs them, along with some Hispanic support, to remain viable in future national elections.

How much influence will this give them on immigration? Perhaps a great deal. “You can seldom do wrong,” Richard Land noted, “appealing to the enlightened self-interest of some politicians.” 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns and Carl M. Cannon

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