WASHINGTON—Efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration system have come to a standstill on Capitol Hill, but the immigration debate among evangelicals is still very much alive.
While Congress voted on an Obamacare fix Friday afternoon, a panel of evangelical thinkers discussed immigration reform at The Heritage Foundation. The panelists complained that the media has propped up various evangelical leaders who claim to speak for millions of Christians, but that not all believers necessarily agree with these leaders’ views on immigration reform.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said years ago denomination heads began speaking to their denominations instead of for them, and immigration reform is another example of the disconnect. He said evangelical leaders should remember that “in a fallen world, good intentions and lofty principles are not sufficient.”
The latest immigration push began after Republicans lost the 2012 elections amid declining support from Hispanic voters. On Capitol Hill, coalitions began forming in the House and Senate, while off the Hill various interest groups discussed how they might unite their efforts to pass an immigration overhaul.
The Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT)—a popular topic at Friday’s forum—began forming in 2011 as groups like World Relief, Liberty Counsel, the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and others sought to consolidate their efforts to advocate for a broad set of “principles” for reform. Signatories include Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Russell Moore, president of the ERLC; Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel; author Max Lucado; evangelist Luis Palau; and many others.
The EIT has largely presented a united front from an evangelical perspective, holding rallies on Capitol Hill and events throughout the country, but Friday’s panel pushed back against any uniform opinions about immigration reform. Moderator Derrick Morgan, vice president of domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation—which has advocated strongly against immigration reform proposals discussed this year—said evangelicals “do not fit into the neat box” the media has created for the issue.
Panelist James Hoffmeier, an Old Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, critiqued EIT’s usage of certain Bible verses to advocate for reform. “I sometimes cringe at what I hear,” he said. “If clergy are going to use the Bible in this debate, they need to use it properly.”
Hoffmeier argued the Bible uses three different Hebrew terms for the translated word “stranger,” and most of the protections are provided for the “ger”—that is, the legal immigrant. He said most illegal immigrants in the United States today would fall under the terms “nokrí” and “zar,” meaning “foreigner.”
The panel also voiced opposition to the Senate bill’s method of legalizing illegal immigrants before completely securing the borders and stopping all visa overstays.
Panelist Kelly Monroe Kullberg, who founded Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration to counter the EIT, said immigration reform should not equal “theft to citizens” who live in a country with a skyrocketing federal debt and overburdened social services. “We’re not against immigration—we’re for wise immigration,” Kullberg said. “Immigration is a beautiful idea.”
Kullberg, who called huge legislative bills “inherently immoral,” also spoke against the EIT. She said the group hasn’t been “forthcoming” in its aims or funding, which she pointed out includes billionaire open borders advocate George Soros. I asked EIT field director Matthew Soerens to respond to those allegations and he said EIT has “never sought or received funding from George Soros.”
Soerens said the National Immigration Forum, which facilitates the EIT but is not a voting member, has received funds from Soros’ Open Society Foundation, but “We have ensured that none of these funds have been used to support the efforts of the EIT.”
A CBS News poll in July found that 75 percent of evangelical Christians support reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. In August, Quinnipiac University found 61 percent of Protestants and 66 percent of Catholics support the Senate immigration overhaul specifically. A LifeWay Research poll released Friday showed that 58 percent of pastors support immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.
I asked the panel if such polls were inaccurate, and they said most evangelicals are only voicing support for broad proposals without knowing specifics. Kullberg pointed to a poll that said 78 percent of evangelicals oppose an “influx of foreign labor.”
After the event, when I asked Kullberg if she supports deportation for the illegal immigrants already here, she said she doesn’t advocate “kicking anyone out” and is more concerned about future immigration levels and loopholes that allow access to social services once illegal immigrants become legal.
Both Kullberg and Hoffmeier expressed to me an openness to a path to legalization (not full citizenship) under the right circumstances. Hoffmeier said it would have to be done in such a way that would not incentivize future flows of immigrants illegally crossing the border.
“Perhaps the solution is that they’re given the equivalent of a green card—and some appropriate penalty—but they never get a chance for citizenship,” Hoffmeier told me.
The disagreement between evangelicals hasn’t always been polite: Last week, Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, called racism “a major factor” in some conservatives’ opposition to immigration reform, including the views of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, possibly the most outspoken immigration opponent in the Republican-controlled House. Sojourners this week began running an ad in King’s district aimed at “shattering stereotypes” about illegal immigrants (Pew Research found 61 percent of all immigrants to the United States in 2012 were Christian).
Hoffmeier said “gadflies like Jim Wallis” are making the problem worse by misusing Scripture to suit their own purposes.
“My objection is mainly to using the Bible in a wrong way,” he said.
Listen to excerpts from the Heritage Foundation panel on The World and Everything in It: