Why Faith Groups Are Rallying Behind Immigration Reform

By Jack Jenkins | November 13, 2013

(Getty/Alex Wong)

(Getty/Alex Wong)

As Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block marched toward the U.S. Capitol Building on a cloudy afternoon this October, he said he felt “a little nervousness.” Walking arm-in-arm with dozens of other faith leaders and surrounded by thousands of chanting protestors—some holding signs that read “People of faith for immigrant justice!”—Kimelman-Block suddenly realized he might be arrested for the first time in his life.

“I’d never done this before,” Kimelman-Block said. “People were cheering and chanting, and it felt like folks were making a big sacrifice for the larger cause. It felt very powerful.”

His inaugural act of civil disobedience was part of the “Camino Americano: March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect,” a massive day of action that gathered thousands in Washington, D.C. to pressure Congress into passing sweeping immigration reform that would create a viable pathway to citizenship for America’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Despite his initial anxiety, Kimelman-Block quickly steeled his resolve; he was soon arrested by Capitol Police, eliciting cheers of support from the crowd as he and 200 other protestors—including eight members of the House of Representatives—were taken away in handcuffs for blocking traffic. As he sat in a crowded jail cell later that evening waiting to be released, some of his fellow advocates expressed surprise that he, a rabbi, would be involved in the push for immigration reform legislation.

“One person asked me, ‘Why do you care about this? What’s your connection to this fight?’” Kimelman-Block said, laughing. “It’s funny: if you’re in the Jewish community, the answer to that question is totally obvious.”

Kimelman-Block, who serves as deputy director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, isn’t the first to discover an “obvious” link between religious faith and support for immigration reform. Although this year’s immigration reform bill is currently stalled on Capitol Hill due to partisan disagreements, support for overhauling our national immigration system is at an all-time high among American faith communities. Thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith have marched, prayed, and protested in support of immigration reform in 2013, drawing the attention of big-name media outlets such as NBC, The New York Times, and TIME. The surge in faith-based advocacy is even raising eyebrows in the halls of power: as The New York Times reported in August, White House officials are now “counting on Catholics and members of other religious groups to help pass an immigration overhaul through a Republican-controlled House.”

These advocacy efforts appear to be shifting hearts and minds, at least among those in pews. According to a March 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institute, majorities of every major American religious group now say that the immigration system should allow undocumented Americans to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. A strong majority (69 percent) of Americans also say that following the Golden Rule—or “providing immigrants the same opportunity that I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”—is “a very or extremely important value” that should influence any immigration reform legislation. And roughly half of the country, particularly white evangelicals and black Protestants, say that the Biblical idea of “welcoming the stranger,” referenced in the book of Matthew, should be a guiding principle during the debate.

But as religious activism around this controversial issue continues to build, many are expressing the same curiosity as Kimelman-Block’s cellmate: where exactly did this groundswell of faith-based support for immigration reform come from? And, will the efforts of religious Americans be enough to convince Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform?

AMERICAN HISTORY IS RIFE with examples of religious influence on immigration debates—although not always in ways that are pleasant for immigrants. Thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants were singled out for their Catholic faith, with so-called “nativists” harassing the “papist” newcomers and declaring that they could never fully integrate into a majority-Protestant America. Similarly, when droves of Jewish immigrants filled the halls of Ellis Island in the early twentieth century to escape persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe, Americans responded by stirring up anti-Semitism and founding anti-immigrant groups such as the Immigration Restriction League.

But this troubled past has not been forgotten by the faithful. “The immigrant rights movement has grown, and so has faith involvement,” said the Rev. Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator for the Interfaith Immigration Coalition and Church World Service. “But the Catholics and mainline denominations have been serving the immigrant community and advocating for just immigration policies for years.”

As the immigration debate’s focus has shifted to the influx of immigrants from Central and South America in recent decades, Catholics, Jews, and progressive Protestants have been quick to lend a helping hand. When thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States to escape oppressive government regimes in their home countries in the 1980s, for instance, hundreds of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist congregations along the U.S.-Mexico border opened up their houses of worship to the refugees, offering them legal aid, financial help, and housing. Many believe the effort, known as the Sanctuary Movement, played a role in pressuring the Reagan administration to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986—a law that provided legal status for more than 3 million undocumented immigrants.

In the mid-2000s, religious groups galvanized around attempts to pass the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill. In 2011, faith leaders were also a crucial part of the coalition that pushed for the passage of the DREAM Act—or legislation that would have granted “conditional” legal status to young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents, as long as they met certain requirements. Not surprisingly, when President Barack Obama’s administration announced last year that it would allow an estimated 800,000 undocumented youth to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which would let them stay in the country legally, it was religious groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that provided political cover for the president. The USCCB issued public statements in support of the move, saying the action would “provide important relief to a vulnerable group that we believe should remain in the country.”

Underpinning these campaigns has been an outpouring of pro-immigrant theology. Jewish Americans who support reform, for example, often ground their advocacy in scripture and the nomadic history of the Jewish people. “The first call of Abraham was to move to another country,” Kimelman-Block said. “The word for Hebrew literally means ‘one who has crossed over.’ Our whole identity as a people is one of movers and immigrants.” Similarly, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which launched its own pro-immigration reform campaign in September, based its support on the Quran’s call to respect human dignity. Christian activists often point to the biblical Jesus and his migratory style of ministry as the inspiration for their advocacy. “Go back to the Bible—what does the Bible stay?” asked Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, the service arm of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “The whole Bible is a story about people in exile. Almost every biblical character was a migrant at some point in their lives, including Jesus himself.”

Fueled by their beliefs and this rich legacy of activism, advocates acknowledge that the 2013 push for immigration reform feels especially urgent. Organizers say that this year’s immigration bill—which passed in the U.S. Senate earlier this year but has since hit a roadblock in the House of Representatives—is as close as the country has ever come to implementing real immigration reform in recent history. “We’re in a critical moment,” said Andersen, who is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “We’ve seen increased deportation, and congregations really feel it. Demographics are changing, neighborhoods are changing … Faith leaders are seeing families separated, they hear the stories, they see the injustice and it moves them to action.”

Indeed, shifting church demographics have no doubt influenced the activism. To wit, American Catholics, who are 39 percent Hispanic and count many undocumented immigrants as church members, have been stalwart advocates for a viable pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. On September 8, scores bishops and priests from major dioceses across the country preached a coordinated sermon urging Congress to pass immigration legislation before the end of the year, and in July 93 presidents of Catholic universities and colleges signed a letter calling for an immigration overhaul. In addition, Sister Simone Campbell, director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, embarked with a group of Catholic nuns on a cross-country immigration-themed bus tour in June, visiting 15 states and holding 53 events in 40 cities.

Mainline Christians—who have also seen increasing numbers of Hispanic immigrants show up in their churches on Sunday—have stepped up their pro-immigration efforts this year as well. The United Methodist Church has organized hundreds of “public witness events” for immigration reform. The Interfaith Immigration Coalition has worked with mainline groups to launch its ongoing 40-day campaign of fasting and prayer for immigration reform. And in August, a group of 11 advocates—many of whom were undocumented immigrants and DREAMers—teamed up with PICO, a faith-based organizing network, to embark on a 285-mile, 21-day pilgrimage across the state of California to draw attention to immigration issues.

Evangelicals are also not ignoring their growing numbers of Hispanic churchgoers, making an ally for immigration reform among a group that has traditionally not supported it. The NAE’s Yang said her organization started getting phone calls from pastors in 2006 asking what churches could do to help immigrants. “A lot of them told us that in the process of ministering to their congregation, they discovered a lot of undocumented immigrants in their church,” she said. “Suddenly it became less about the numbers and more about that individual and their families. How could they ignore [immigration reform] when the people who are affected are the same people they worship with every Sunday?”

A recent PRRI survey shows that now a majority (56 percent) of white evangelical Protestants support a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the United States illegally, provided they meet certain requirements. In 2012, a group of evangelical faith leaders founded the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) with the goal of pressuring Congress to pass a bipartisan solution for immigration reform. EIT is comprised of an unusually diverse coalition, including more conservative groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals as well as more progressive-leaning organizations like Sojourners. It also boasts support from prominent pastors from across the spectrum, including Jim Daly, head of Focus on the Family; Richard Land, former policy leader at the Southern Baptist Convention; and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

The EIT has made ample use of evangelical media savvy to focus their efforts on conservative Christians skeptical of immigration reform. The group’s “I Was a Stranger” campaign, launched in February of this year, called on more than 100,000 evangelical churches nationwide to read one scripture on immigration per day during the 40-day Christian celebration of Lent. Later, when Congress went on recess for the month of August, the EIT spent $400,000 on pro-immigration reform radio ads targeted at specific congressional districts. Evangelicals have also been a key part of the influential “Bibles, Badges, and Businesses for Immigration Reform” coalition, which seeks to unify the efforts of pro-immigration religious leaders, law enforcement officials, and business heads. The group was part of a “fly-in” in October, which brought more than 600 advocates, many of them conservatives, to Washington, D.C. to urge the House to pass immigration reform.

IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN whether religious activism around immigration reform will be enough to pressure Congress to act. Many Republican House members are refusing to vote on the Senate bill, choosing instead to support a series of smaller bills that place a greater emphasis on border security and guest worker programs than on a pathway to citizenship. There is also the chance they will not bring those bills up for a vote this year, a prospect that grows more likely by the day.

But religious supporters of immigration reform are still banking on a secret weapon: numbers. Several prominent Republican House members hail from congressional districts with high percentages of Catholic voters, and many evangelical leaders who support immigration reform head sizable churches in conservative districts—including the home district of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). This makes faith groups a strategic ally in efforts to help pressure Republican lawmakers to vote for reform and explains why faith-based organizing groups such as PICO continue to participate in immigration reform coalitions that target Republicans from areas with large numbers of Hispanic voters. It’s also telling that well-funded immigration advocacy groups such as Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us are calling up evangelical leaders to help persuade conservative lawmakers—they think it will work.

What’s more, the religious case for immigration reform has shown to resonate with conservative representatives who are sensitive to religious arguments. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL)—who represents one of the most Republican congressional districts in the country in a state with some of the nation’s strictest immigration policies—has become a vocal endorser of immigration reform. When pressed by his constituents to explain his reasoning in August, Bachus, a Southern Baptist, said, “Y’all may think I’m copping out, but with my Christian faith, it’s hard for me to say that I’m gonna divide [immigrant] families up.”

Ultimately, however, religious leaders who support immigration reform say their passion stems not from their dedication to strategy, but from belief. Last month, before the same march that led to Rabbi Kimelman-Block’s arrest, religious leaders assembled in front of the Capitol building to pray about comprehensive immigration reform, calling it “a God issue.” Among the clergy was Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, a prominent immigration reform advocate and the child of an undocumented immigrant.

As the sun peeked through the clouds behind her, she recalled the lived experience of those who are too often forced to hide in the shadows—undocumented immigrant workers and their families. “Our immigrant brothers and sisters … keep working for the benefit of us all,” Carcaño said. “Picking our crops, putting food on our tables, building our roads and our homes, tending to the needs of our children and our elderly parents, beautifying our communities, and inspiring our congregations. “

“We will continue to raise our voices for justice for immigrant families in our towns, in our cities, in our states, and right here on Capitol Hill,” she continued. “And, finally, we will never cease raising our voices to God who loves the immigrant among us, and whose justice shall prevail.”

Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @jackmjenkins.

The John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics recently sponsored an event on this issue. A video of “Welcoming the Stranger: A Panel Discussion on Religion and Immigration” can be viewed on the center website. 

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