WASHINGTON—About 300 evangelical leaders from more than 20 states converged Wednesday at the United States Capitol to lobby Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.
The Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action on Immigration Reform drew participants, including many pastors, from around the country for a morning press conference, worship service, and more than 60 meetings with lawmakers. The long-planned event occurred hours after the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” released its 844-page plan for comprehensive immigration reform.
While the evangelical leaders stopped short of endorsing the Senate plan, which they hadn’t had time to read in full, they were optimistic that early parameters of the bill appear to be in line with what they support: keeping families together, helping the U.S. economy, strong border security, and putting the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants on a path toward citizenship.
“From what we’ve heard, it’s a good start,” said Richard Land, outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Strong evangelical support for immigration reform represents a significant shift since 2007, when reform efforts languished without significant objection from the evangelical community. Pastors on Wednesday said they could no longer keep silent about an issue affecting them so directly.
“This issue has a face and a name,” said David Uth, senior pastor at First Baptist Church Orlando. Eight different language groups meet at Uth’s church every weekend.
Although the leaders didn’t want to endorse the Senate plan, they pointed to one element they like: The proposed legislation includes a 10-year path, with penalties, to earn a green card, at which point immigrants would be eligible to apply for citizenship.
“That’s not amnesty as defined in any English language dictionary,” Land said. “Anybody who continues to call it amnesty needs to take a remedial English class.”
The pastors who spoke with me said Christians are in a good position to understand grace and what it means to have a debt forgiven. They said they aren’t advocating a free pass—as opponents of immigration reform often charge—but a way for illegal immigrants to be reconciled with the law. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition made that clear, saying the group wants a balanced approach that respects the rule of law: “We’re not advocating amnesty.”
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical groups including the ERLC, World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals, and others, hosted Wednesday’s event. In January, the group sent letters to President Barack Obama and members of Congress asking them to move quickly on immigration reform. At the same time, they launched the “I Was a Stranger” challenge, which encouraged church members to read one verse about immigrants per day for 40 days.
Colorado churches were among the most involved in the “I Was a Stranger” challenge. I accompanied several Colorado pastors, none of whom had ever lobbied a member of Congress on any issue, to an afternoon meeting with Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.
Coffman, who represents areas south and east of Denver, including Aurora and Littleton, replaced anti-immigration hawk Tom Tancredo in 2009, and his immigration stance has recently softened—along with other Republicans since the party’s November losses. Scott Vermillion, pastor of Aspen Grove Community Church in Littleton, led the delegation in a prayer before entering Coffman’s office for a meeting that lasted just over 30 minutes.
Vermillion told me he was pleased at the group’s welcome and said the meeting went well: “I don’t think the role of the U.S. government is to break up the family, but to protect the core dignity of a family. I thought Congressman Coffman got that.”
Vermillion, whose Littleton church has about 200 attendees, got involved with the immigration issue when his congregation began partnering with North Littleton Promise, an outreach program to mostly at-risk immigrant children. He said the church seeks to serve the kids with both academic help and the gospel.
Land said most voters are far ahead of their elected officials on immigration reform, on which he said two-thirds of the American people agree. He noted 9 million Hispanic evangelicals reside in the United States, making up more than 15 percent of the nation’s evangelical population.
Despite the seemingly positive start to public debate, many so-called “poison pills” from special interest groups could still kill immigration reform legislation. Homosexual activists expressed public disappointment that the bill does not include a new visa for same-sex partners as part of the proposed family reunification policy, and the issue will likely resurface during the amendment process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the immigration bill for Friday.