WASHINGTON—Evangelicals descended on Capitol Hill again on Wednesday as Christian leaders and pastors continue to pressure lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, which designated Wednesday a “National Pray for Reform Day,” began with a morning press conference at the Capitol, which included Southern Baptists, representatives from World Relief, several pastors, and others. More than 300 evangelical leaders from 27 states then fanned out for more than 90 meetings with lawmakers throughout the day.
“This need transcends race, political party, and even faith,” said Carlos Campo, president of Regent University. “Our country will be stronger with a system that strategically addresses our immigration problem, and reflects the compassion that has defined our nation.”
Meanwhile, leaders of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) spent the morning in a meeting with White House officials. The group then met with Republican leadership in the afternoon, including House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Conference Committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
“There is a sense of cautious optimism stemming out of the meeting with these Republican members of Congress who in essence hold in their hands the future of 11 million people,” said NHCLC President Samuel Rodriguez, who said he thinks “we’re millimeters away” from reform, not in time, but in terms of agreement on core principles, including no amnesty, increased border security, a verifiable guest worker program, and a process through which the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States can be made right with the law.
Robert Gittelson, NHCLC’s vice president of governmental affairs, said the emotion of the meeting surprised him, and he left feeling more optimistic than ever.
“The people that were getting emotional in this meeting and speaking from the heart were their leaders,” Gittelson said, adding that he “came to understand the deep conviction some of the leaders have” to reform what everyone in Congress agrees is a broken immigration system.
One thing Republicans made clear was that they aren’t interested in setting artificial deadlines. That was a major criticism of the Senate legislation, which passed four weeks ago, despite a vocal minority of Republican opposition. The bill garnered 68 votes, but many of the chamber’s most conservative members voted against it, saying Majority Leader Harry Reid used an artificial deadline to jam the legislation through before it could be fully debated.
Republicans’ chief complaint about the Senate bill is that it would legalize most illegal immigrants before the border is secure, but how one defines a secure border also became a major point of contention. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., introduced a late compromise amendment to significantly boost the border security elements of the plan—including $48 billion in spending for everything from drones to night-vision goggles—but 32 Republicans still voted against final passage.
“This bill has $48 billion thrown up against the wall to buy the votes to say we’re going to have a secure border when in fact we’re not,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who co-wrote Immigration Wars this spring and has been active in public debate on the issue, said he supports the Senate bill not because it perfects the immigration system, but because it would improve it. He said progress has already been made on border security and a key element of further securing it is to reform the legal system of entry.
“The 2007 immigration bill contained a number of ‘enforcement triggers’ that have already been met, including increasing border agents and border barriers,” Bush wrote in an email to WORLD. “The best way to secure the border is to encourage immigrants to come in through legal channels, which is why we need a temporary worker system, more flexible visas linked to economic needs, and a verification system that employers can use to check an immigrant’s status. We need high fences but also wide gates.”
Although the Senate took a comprehensive approach to reform, Boehner has already said the House will take on immigration in stages. Rodriguez said it doesn’t matter as long as the pieces are passed within a reasonable amount of time. He said after Wednesday’s meeting, he’s convinced the House’s approach, while not his first choice, would end up being just as effective at achieving the major goals.
Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, a key House member on immigration, said he hopes the House can pass reform and be ready to go to a conference committee with the Senate by the end of the year. That could be difficult with Congress only scheduled to work nine days between next week and Oct. 1, with budget fights looming in the fall.
Many believe the process may be stalling as momentum wanes, but Rodriguez told me momentum is actually picking up among evangelicals: “We have more and more evangelicals—these are Bible-believing, pro-life, pro-family, religious liberty evangelicals—making immigration reform their justice cause in the 21st century. This is about faith, not about politics. … The evangelical community will be primarily responsible for the passage of immigration reform.”