Special Report

Will the Immigration Circle Be Unbroken?

A bipartisan, evangelical solution is unlikely, despite the fanfare surrounding the "Evangelical Immigration Table."

By 6.15.12

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Some prominent conservative evangelicals have joined with liberal groups to resuscitate Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

A June 12 press conference in Washington, D.C. announced an "Evangelical Immigration Table" backing these principles for desired U.S. immigration policy:

  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person.
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family.
  • Respects the rule of law.
  • Guarantees secure national borders.
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers.
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.

The first five principles are laudable but likely will be overshadowed by the final point for legalization of illegal immigrants. Endorsers include officials from the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and Focus on the Family, as well as liberal groups such as Jim Wallis's Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, plus Bread for the World.

"There are many ordinary days in Washington," declared Wallis, the Religious Left's most prominent voice. "I think this is an extraordinary day." An official from NAE's relief arm agreed: "To rise above the fray, the Left and the Right, the polarization that simply does not need to be there, and create a better life for immigrants." The official "Table" statement lamented "political stalemate" over immigration and urged a "bipartisan solution."

Speakers at the press conference cited polls claiming overwhelming public support for their version of immigration reform. But they did not explain why proposals for legalization keep failing in Congress or why some states, like Arizona and Alabama, have enacted their own controversial laws against illegal immigration. Some polls in fact show evangelicals are the most resistant among American demographic groups to proposals for legalization. Clearly the coalition aims to revive Comprehensive Immigration Reform as a viable issue by trying to energize evangelicals, which are a key constituency among Republicans.

"Together we will create a national groundswell for comprehensive immigration reform," Wallis promised. But Wallis, whose public persona tends to dominate whatever coalition he joins, is unlikely to persuade the more conservative evangelicals who are the primary target. The Evangelical Immigration Table maybe would have been shrewder to exclude Wallis and highlight its conservative supporters. 

Undoubtedly the participating conservative evangelicals in the "Table" are sincere in affirming "fairness to taxpayers" and "secure national borders." But Wallis and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action are pacifists opposed to all force. In what sense do they support "secure borders" beyond maybe the moral suasion of unarmed Christian Peacemaking Teams encamped at the border? As to protecting taxpayers, the liberal members of the "Table" likely have a different understanding than the others, having typically emphasized the right of illegals to government benefits and services.

The Table was also vague about the desired sequences of events. Would borders, and presumably visa enforcement, be secured well before any mass legalization, as the conservative participants presumably prefer? Or would legalization get priority, as Wallis et al. almost surely prefer?

There was also some doubt at the press conference as to the political priority evangelicals should attach to Comprehensive Immigration Reform versus other issues of concern to evangelicals and other traditional religionists, such as marriage, abortion, and religious freedom issues especially relating to the Obamacare contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. Historic Christian teaching is pretty unequivocal about marriage and sanctity of life, and since religious freedom is central to the church's ability to function, presumably the answer would be obvious. Neither the Bible nor Christian tradition offers clear policy guidance about immigration policies for modern civil states.

In this election year, should evangelicals prioritize or not marriage, abortion, and religious liberty over a more prudential issue like immigration law? The Evangelical Immigration Table left the waters muddied. No doubt Jim Wallis and the Evangelical Left are pleased, since their exertions have long tried to steer evangelicals away from traditional social conservatism in favor of issues like immigration liberalization. 

There is also likely the belief among some evangelicals supporting the "Table" that they are representing and appealing to the growing number of evangelical Hispanics. And perhaps they are. But polls don't show automatic mass support by Hispanic citizens for legalization. And evangelical Hispanic churches, which are mostly charismatic and Pentecostal, overwhelmingly are non-political. Possibly some Anglo evangelicals, influenced by a few Hispanic activists, are superimposing their own expectations onto Hispanic evangelicals. Like other Americans, Hispanic voters this year are most concerned about the economy. And like Anglo evangelicals, evangelical Hispanics tend to care deeply about marriage and abortion as public issues to which their faith speaks directly.

Many fine Christian leaders, including several friends whom I greatly admire, have endorsed the "Table." But likely they will be disappointed by the Table's ultimate inability to motivate many traditional evangelicals. Meanwhile, liberal participants, chiefly Jim Wallis, who represents no church but is mainly a media presence, will adroitly exploit the "Table" to amplify their own influence and preferred policies.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.