Over the last several years numerous prominent evangelical officials and agencies have assertively advocated mass legalization of illegal immigrants as a biblical imperative. They joined more liberal Mainline Protestant agencies and officials, who have for many years urged this same policy. Both liberal Protestants and evangelicals frequently cited Old Testament commands to offer hospitality to strangers as their theological justification for sweeping immigration legislation.
Evangelicals are an important Republican constituency. So mobilizing evangelical support for legalization was considered key to persuading the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives to acquiesce to the U.S. Senate’s version of comprehensive immigration reform, which included legalization first followed by later border security enhancements.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a program of the National Immigration Forum, was formed to rally evangelicals for the legalization cause. With generous funding, it gathered an impressive list of endorsing organizations and individual religious leaders, from Jim Wallis’ Sojourners on the left, to the National Association of Evangelicals in the center, to Southern Baptists on the right. Hundreds of clergy were flown into D.C. for rallies. There were national radio and newspaper ads. There was a very successful media campaign, with almost every major news outlet announcing that immigration “reform” was the new key issue for evangelicals.
But as one Southern Baptist supporter of the immigration push regretted, it was largely a “grass tops” and not a “grassroots” campaign. Supposedly countless polls proved that evangelicals, along with nearly all other Americans, backed mass legalization over mass deportation. But almost no House Republicans were persuaded. The surprising defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his June primary in Virginia against an outspoken legalization opponent helped to ensure the death of sweeping immigration legislation in this Congress.
The Evangelical Immigration Table after Cantor’s loss was defiant, and prominent evangelicals signed a letter to the GOP House leadership insisting they pass immigration legislation before the August recess. But soon even President Obama acknowledged publicly that immigration “reform” was dead for this year.
Why were the evangelical advocates for mass legalization not more effective politically, despite tremendous funding, organization, and media? They perhaps believed their own media hype. Polls usually show evangelicals and others favoring legalization over mass deportations, if forced to choose between the two, although almost nobody advocates the latter. But polls also show most Americans, and almost certainly most evangelicals, favor security first before mass legalization. And when asked, most evangelicals favor reduced levels of even legal immigration. Even when forced to choose between legalization or deportation, evangelical support for the former actually dropped earlier this summer, despite the massive media blitz, according to a report at The Atlantic.
So why have evangelicals not followed many of their elites urging mass legalization? What is the right way for churches and people of faith to address illegal immigration? And how does the recent influx of minors from Central America affect the debate?
Nearly all polls show that evangelicals are the least supportive among religious groups of legalization proposals. Most evangelicals are conservative, and shifting them into a new cause not seen as conservative is naturally difficult. Like other skeptics of immigration “reform,” many likely are doubtful that the promised increased security that would follow mass legalization, as in the Senate legislation, would ever actually happen. The Evangelical Immigration Table pledged support for “secure national borders.” But the rhetoric of its leaders often implied otherwise. Some evangelical elites emphasized that all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are biblical style “sojourners” meriting full hospitality. Some faulted political opposition on racism and xenophobia, disregarding serious arguments for security.
Evangelicals have for decades often politically mobilized for issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. These issues are closely tied to historic Christian teachings. Despite claims of “biblical” immigration policy, the Bible offers no specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law in the twenty-first century. Christian teaching broadly affirms the dignity of all persons, and the state’s vocation for maintaining order. But the details of immigration law, like most of politics, are matters of prudential judgment about which Christians and others of good will can disagree.
The Catholic bishops, like some evangelical elites, strongly favor mass legalization. But Catholic teaching, with more nuance than often found in evangelical thought, suggests a hierarchy of teachings. Not all public policy issues have binding direction from Christian faith or equally compelling urgency. For example, Catholic teaching asserts that church strictures against abortion and euthanasia are absolutely binding. But what bishops may say about economic policy, or immigration law, while instructive and important, doesn’t claim the same binding moral authority, leaving room for prudential judgment. Evangelicals, among whom I number, can learn from Catholic thought.
Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, to be more effective, might take more seriously the deep concerns of legalization critics. What is the economic impact on working-class natives and legal immigrants of increased immigration and mass legalization? What are the theological imperatives for governments to secure borders? When does justice require deportations? And why not prioritize security first, which might facilitate a broader coalition for a legalization process later?
Finally, the dramatic arrival of many underage illegal immigrants at the border has aroused calls by many religious legalization advocates for the U.S. to embrace all minors who arrive at our shores. Churches are right to offer their ministry of compassion to all. But too many religious activists confuse the church’s vocation with the state’s. And often they succumb to narrow sentiment of the moment while disregarding potential unintended consequences of the future.
Many minors and adults illegally rushing to our borders did so believing de facto U.S. policy would permit their entry. Further talk of legalization or non-enforcement inevitably will encourage others to make the dangerous journey. Meanwhile millions around the world, many of whom live amid greater poverty and violence than Central Americans, wait for years for legal entry.
Evangelical elites and other religious advocates for mass legalization would be less polarizing and more persuasive if they listened to, instead of speaking for, their own constituency. They would do well to show more interest in genuine border security and to stop stigmatizing its advocates, recognizing that the Bible is not a detailed political manifesto. Churches would be more faithful to their vocation if they encouraged conversation and consensus on issues like immigration instead of contentious and dogmatic advocacy for only one side in the debate.