Last week, as Senator Marco Rubio’s office was fielding phone calls from opponents of an immigration law rewrite, an appeal went out to evangelical Christians to counter the onslaught.
“Senator Rubio is working hard on common-sense immigration reform that upholds the biblical commandment to welcome the stranger,” a recorded voice said before automatically connecting callers to the Florida Republican’s Washington office. They were asked to tell whomever answered that they backed a set of evangelical principles on immigration, including providing a path toward citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents.
The call-in campaign demonstrates an intensifying push by evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican Party base, in favor of revamping immigration laws in ways most Republicans have until recently rejected.
While some evangelical leaders have long favored an immigration revision, it’s only now -- in the wake of the 2012 elections that spotlighted Republicans’ weakness with Hispanic voters -- that they are stepping up their activism.
It remains a difficult goal, even with a new sense of political urgency among Republicans who warn their party must do better with the fastest growing minority voting bloc. A large swath of the party base opposes loosening immigration rules, and their advocacy group are also engaged in the debate.
A bipartisan group of senators, with President Barack Obama’s backing, are working to unveil this month a proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. While their effort has gathered momentum, the elements of such a plan, including the conditions under which undocumented immigrants could obtain citizenship, and how to handle the future flow of legal immigrants, remain controversial and could undermine progress.
Religious leaders pressing for action are adopting their opponents’ tactics, including advertising and grassroots mobilization, to persuade Republicans that some of their strongest backers will stand by them if they favor change.
“Evangelicals have got to make it clear that if you speak up and support this, you will have substantial grassroots support” that would insulate Republican lawmakers from potential primary challengers based on immigration, said Richard Land, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The landscape has changed on this.”
His organization is a leading force behind the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that is pressing pastors, church members and lawmakers to begin thinking about and acting on immigration policy in biblical terms. The group is urging people to read 40 passages of the Bible that touch on the topic. Among them are those recounting how God tells Israelites to deal with immigrants -- “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” -- and those that describe Jesus himself as a refugee.
They call their effort the “I was a stranger” campaign, based on the Matthew 25:35-40 verse: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
“They are realizing that maybe people will change their hearts and minds about this if they look at it from a biblical angle, and we’re getting a lot of encouragement from the members of Congress, because they see it could be the right way for them as a politician to do the right thing,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals’ humanitarian arm.
Beyond the Bible, the group is using conventional means -- targeted calls, letter-writing, personal visits to lawmakers and paid advertising -- to press its case. Next week, it plans to begin airing a radio advertisement in South Carolina in which a local Southern Baptist pastor calls for an immigration rewrite that allows undocumented immigrants to become citizens.
The commercial may give cover to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is the focus of a $100,000 advertising campaign by the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA that criticizes him for participating in an eight-member bipartisan group working on proposed changes to immigration. Rubio is also part of the group.
The pastor who recorded the radio spot, the Reverend Jim Goodroe, serves in the House district of Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, who has an A-minus rating from NumbersUSA and chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration.
Leaders of the effort acknowledge their battle is uphill. “It’s not a done deal -- there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. “In some cases, what members fear the most is not the general election but the primaries. And in some of the primaries, it’s still the case that this isn’t the most popular position for them to take.”
NumbersUSA and an affiliated group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), orchestrated a telephone-and fax-fueled public revolt against a 2007 immigration measure proposed by former President George W. Bush legalizing undocumented immigrants. They called the bill “amnesty” for lawbreakers. The day the proposal collapsed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the opposition campaign had “lit up the switchboard here for weeks,” and: “Your voice was heard.”
NumbersUSA President Roy Beck says his members, many of whom are evangelical Christians, are just as motivated this year to block a legalization measure, and have sent more than 1 million faxes to Capitol Hill with that message.
Prominent evangelical leaders are “saying that the Bible says anybody who breaks into the United States should be given citizenship, or anyone who gets a visa to visit Disneyworld and decides to violate the visa and take a job has to be allowed to stay?” Beck said in an interview. “I know they don’t believe that.”
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading Republican critic of legalization for undocumented immigrants, said evangelical support for a wide-ranging measure isn’t unanimous.
“I think overwhelmingly that most people in Alabama, including evangelicals, are not buying into the argument that we can accept a system that doesn’t work,” Sessions said. “If you polled evangelicals, they would not support this.”
In fact, recent public surveys showed some degree of support among evangelical Christians for providing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Feb. 15-18 found 32 percent of those describing themselves as “born again” backing such a move, just below the 35 percent support from all Americans and 7 percentage points more than self-described Republicans.
Those figures, combined with election results showing Hispanics comprised 10 percent of the electorate and 71 percent of them supported Obama, have prompted evangelical Christians to become more vocal.
“Some of us kept trying to tell some of our conservative brethren that they were creating a catastrophe for themselves, but they didn’t believe the existence of the avalanche until they tasted the dirt,” Land said.
Also at play is the fact that the face of evangelicals is changing; Land now estimates that between 400,000 and 500,000 are Hispanics, and as many as 40 percent of Southern Baptists are undocumented.
Graham said he’s uncertain the community’s efforts will change Republicans’ position, yet “it does help a lot to have faith-based people talking about the humanity of this issue.”
Rubio also appreciates evangelicals’ involvement, yet said it has limits when it comes to ensuring undocumented immigrants receive no advantage over those who arrive legally.
“I remind them that these are folks most of whom made this decision willingly, and so we’re not going to treat them better than we do people that have not violated the law,” he said.
That’s also an issue that Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, who oversees immigration legislation in the House, is giving attention.
“There’s a lot of different options between deportation and automatic citizenship,” for the undocumented, the Virginia Republican said in an interview.
Mathew Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia, has been discussing the issue with Goodlatte, who has an A+ from NumbersUSA, and urging local pastors to get involved.
Lawmakers are “not going to take a position if they think they’re going to step out there and get shot down by their constituents on this,” Staver said.