Fresh Start

Will Evangelicals’ Immigration Shift Mean Common Ground With Obama?

A big coalition of leaders just embraced an overhaul. Could a bipartisan deal be near? By David Sessions.

Whenever presidents are looking for a bipartisan issue to champion, immigration reform is always at the top of the list of Washington insiders’ ideas. President George W. Bush lamented in his memoir that he chose Social Security reform as his second-term project instead of immigration reform. And an array of advisers around President Obama, from his former chief of staff William Daley to unnamed current aides, have told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that immigration reform is a leading candidate for a possible second term in which the president has virtually no political capital to spend on massive policy battles on the scale of health-care reform.

If the Obama team is looking for an issue that can “break the fever” of the conservative opposition, as the president puts it, then immigration reform might be shaping up to be the most obvious choice. Thanks to an emerging coalition of religious leaders, it might be the only issue where there is plausible common ground to be shared between the White House and the GOP base.

A diverse group of evangelical leaders gathered in Washington this week to announce the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, which cast immigration reform as a moral imperative and establish “ground rules” for a policy solution. The signatories include Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “morality and ethics” arm and a prominent figure on the religious right, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the left-leaning evangelical organization that has long advocated for more humane immigration policy. One signatory seems to have come as a shock even to the other evangelicals: Focus on the Family, a group that has been seen for years as aligned with the most right-wing elements of the Republican Party. The statement was also endorsed by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.

The arrival of the Christian conservatives at the immigration-reform table might seem like a surprise, considering the high tensions surrounding the issue on the right. Driven by the GOP base, multiple states have passed or considered harsh new immigration laws, and 2010 midterm Tea Party campaigns, including many run by evangelical candidates, were marked by particularly inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric. Conservative voters’ passionate feelings about immigration have been on display throughout the Republican primary, like when debate viewers booed Texas Governor Rick Perry for supporting in-state tuition prices for undocumented immigrants. Mitt Romney had to assure voters he would veto the DREAM Act, a no-brainer bill that would grant citizenship to young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as small children and spent their entire lives here.

But little by little, evangelical leaders have been moving the dial on the issue among believers, and it appears that the human realities of America’s immigration process have begun to touch the evangelical conscience. Land told me he has been having a “dialogue” in the Southern Baptist Convention for “almost a decade now,” resulting in the adoption last year of a resolution supporting a path to legalization for undocumented workers. In 2009, the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest U.S. evangelical group, overwhelmingly passed a similar resolution calling for “fair and humane treatment for those who are illegal immigrants.” Jim Daly, who became president of Focus in 2009 and has carried out a campaign to soften the organization’s political rhetoric, almost immediately began signaling that immigration reform might be an issue to which evangelicals could apply their concern for the American social fabric. Daly cited the family issues at stake in immigration, including the extended periods required to legalize children of green card-holders, as a motivating factor. “When you look at the family impact now and the stories we’ve received over the past year or two, it’s pretty tragic what’s occurring,” he told Christianity Today.

Some evangelicals have always had more complex feelings about immigration than their support for Arizona-like laws suggests. While many are white and politically conservative, a large number are concentrated in border states where interacting with immigrants is a daily part of life, and not necessarily a disagreeable one. Many evangelicals employ illegal immigrants, attend church with them, and are involved in ministries in Mexico. Some have told me they admire immigrants’ work ethic and family values, and wish American policies could make it easier for them to work here legally. That doesn’t necessarily make them unlikely to support things like border moats, profiling, and voter ID laws, but it means there are nevertheless feelings of moral conflict and even compassion for immigrants driven by poverty to break up their families and live as outlaws in the U.S.

Others have seen up close what the American system can do to immigrants. Samuel Rodriguez, a California pastor and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, described meeting with a Hispanic pastor who accidentally overstayed his visa due to miscommunications with the government, and despite having lived in the U.S. for decades and having children here, suddenly found out his wife was being deported. “One of things I did to sort of change the dialogue, was to say, ‘if you want to understand the immigration issue, take the leader of your Hispanic ministry out to lunch,’” Land said. “Almost everyone has one—many Southern Baptist churches have an iglesia batista attached.” Because much of their growth now comes from ethnic populations, evangelicals have seen members of their own churches deported. “I’ve heard Hispanic leaders say ‘you’re deporting the revival of the American church if you deport these 12 million people,’” Jim Wallis said.

Despite these shifts, evangelical consensus has been assumed to be in step with the increasingly radical orthodoxy of the Republican Party, and all of the evangelical leaders I spoke with saw their agreement on the statement as a major break with that reputation. “I remember six years when white evangelicals were not supportive of any sort of conversation that even prompted the idea of immigration reform,” Rodriguez said. “It was years in the making. To see Focus on the Family there, and to get endorsed by the Catholic bishops, that is historic.” Wallis sounded a similarly triumphant note: “There are ordinary days in Washington, but this was one of the most extraordinary I’ve experienced in a long time.”

It’s unclear whether the statement will provoke a backlash from right-wing Christian conservatives, but the signatories are confident that their logic will be persuasive to the reluctant. Talking about Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) proposed version of the Dream Act, Land seemed to think the case for better immigration policy makes itself. “These young people, many of them have been here their whole conscious life, and came here through no fault of their own. Many of them graduated high school, and want to go to college or serve in the military. They want to be productive citizens—just what exactly is your problem?” The group’s statement makes clear it’s not calling for amnesty, and some support “restitution” measures that would involve illegal immigrants paying fines or back taxes as part of their path to citizenship. Rodriguez said that even if some evangelicals objected, he felt the statement had a prophetic role to play in changing their minds. “We’re not naive to the fact that many white, evangelical, social conservatives have been very vociferous in opposition to immigration reform,” he said. “So to have the leaders support it, we’re basically preaching to our own pews that this is where we should go, this is the narrow way.”

The emerging and broad-based support among evangelicals for immigration reform could be an additional nudge to the Obama administration toward the issue. Though the introduction of policy specifics will certainly complicate the picture, immigration reform appears to have a fighting chance of attracting some measure of bipartisan support. Republicans have a demographic incentive to change their tone on immigration as the rapid growth of minority populations threatens their electoral future. And some in the party seem to do it: Rubio, for instance, has warned the GOP that holding out on policies like the DREAM Act is eventual political suicide. Arizona Republicans quickly scuttled additional anti-immigration bills after realizing, like Alabama, that the harsh new laws were having disastrous economic effects.

“I’ve talked to Republicans, and there are Republicans who quietly and privately believe we ought to move in this direction and are not happy with the divisive rhetoric of the primary on their side,” Wallis said. “They see that it’s right and they see the future.”