Evangelical Leadership on Immigration Reform

While I read it regularly on Feedly, The Atlantic is not exactly my go-to source for reporting on Christianity in America or elsewhere. And yet this morning it featured a hugely interesting, informative post with the surprising headline, “Is Immigration Reform Dead? Not If Evangelicals Can Do Anything About It.”

FYI – I don’t normally write lengthy pieces so close to each other, but having just written a post on the absence of popular patriotic songs from a surprisingly large number of hymnals that hints at the complexity of Christian understandings of citizenship in this country, it seemed like The Atlantic story got at the same theme in a different way…

Michael Wear
Michael Wear – Values Partnerships

Written by Michael Wear, who led faith outreach for Pres. Obama’s 2012 campaign and worked in the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships when the president began his push for immigration reform in 2010, the post gives an insider account of the role that evangelicals like megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Leith Anderson, World Relief staff members Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, political polar opposites Jim Wallis and Russell Moore, and Hispanic church leaders Gabriel Salguero, Samuel Rodriguez, and Luis Cortes played both in changing evangelical opinion on immigration and then pushing for reform in Congress. It’s both a familiar and unfamiliar place for evangelicals to be, as Wears explains:

For evangelical Christians, this type of drawn-out, hard-fought legislative battle is nothing new. But for a diverse coalition of evangelical leaders and congregants, it is new to be aligned with Democrats, and prodding Republicans to do what they believe is the right — and moral — thing…. “Evangelicals have the opportunity to be the conscience of the nation,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me.

The whole article is worth reading, but I’d specifically highlight Wear’s analysis of changing evangelical attitudes on this issue. From interviewing some of the aforementioned leaders, he identifies “three main pillars of evangelical support for ‘compassionate, just’ immigration reform”:

  1. Rev. Gabriel Salguero
    Rev. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of Lamb’s Church in New York City and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition

    Scripture and theology: “For evangelicals, the Bible is not simply a series of books full of suggestions and nice thoughts, but the foundation for how they try to live their life, relate to God, and relate to other human beings. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me,” has clear implications for the immigration debate for evangelicals.”

  2. Personal relationships: “…as Hispanic populations have expanded in the Midwest, Southeast and Mountain West, churches like Willow Creek have had to grapple with the human aspect of the immigration problem. Evangelicals take anti-immigrant rhetoric personally, because they know hardworking, God-fearing immigrants in their churches and their neighborhoods.”
  3. Numbers: “If they deport 11 million immigrants, they will be deporting the future of the American church,” Wallis told Wears. Given the obvious benefits to American evangelical churches of immigration from places like an increasingly evangelical-Pentecostal Latin America, Wears concludes that “In a cultural landscape that provides evangelicals many reasons for pessimism, the energy provided by immigrants is cause for optimism.”

I don’t have a lot of personal expertise or experience to add here, but I would note that my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (not a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, but very much in the larger tradition of evangelicalism via its roots in Pietism and 19th century revivalism), received a draft resolution supporting immigration reform at its recent annual meeting in Detroit. (We’ll be having a year-long conversation about the resolution, with feedback being solicited through the fall, then vote on a revised version of the resolution next year.) The resolution alludes to the shift in evangelicalism described by Wear and, in its own argument for “fair and humane immigration laws and policies” exemplifies his three pillars:

  • The resolution is preceded by a lengthy “Biblical Foundation” section that quotes or cites about thirty separate passages from the Old and New Testaments.
  • Its contemporary section concludes on a more personal note, hinting at the fact that over a quarter of ECC congregations are “ethnic” or “multicultural,” including one Laotian, one South Sudanese, and three Hispanic congregations in our regional conference: “At its core, the immigration debate is about real people, many of whom are members of our Covenant family —mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers, and grandfathers each with their own walk of faith and story to share.”

But the ECC resolution on immigration also emphasizes a factor that didn’t show up in Wear’s account but is crucially important for Euro-American evangelicals to remember:

Swedish immigrants in Minnesota, 1868
Four of the 1.25 million Swedes who immigrated to the United States between 1850 and 1930 – Minnesota Historical Society

The early immigrants of the Covenant Church [overwhelmingly from Sweden] faced profound challenges as they entered as strangers and foreigners into a new land. These Covenant ancestors were strengthened in their journey through faith in Jesus Christ who was no stranger to the experiences of immigrants. We want to consider how both our history as an immigrant church in an immigrant nation and our biblically rooted faith in Jesus Christ may prophetically speak to our present context. How does our history and our common faith inform how we understand the difficult and complex issues surrounding immigration?

Or as I said in a sermon preached at my own church two years ago, on some famous verses from Revelation 7:

…our founders were a people who changed one nation for another, one language for another. To use a great King James word that has all but disappeared from our bibles, they were sojourning, living in this world without ever being “at home” in it….

Our forebears did not expect any earthly city — whether Stockholm or Minneapolis, Oslo or St. Paul — to be their true home, but they looked to the coming city — where the children of God would come before His throne, blessed forever to “worship him day and night within his temple” (v 15).

As our friend Efrem Smith reminded us at the Covenant’s annual meeting this past June [2011], it’s easy to forget that we are an “immigrant church.” As years and generations went by and they accumulated wealth and status and mortgages and power, one-time immigrants and their descendants were tempted to stop sojourning, to settle down and become what no Christian under ordeal should ever become: comfortable.

So I’d encourage my Covenant readers to read and respond to our denomination’s resolution, my evangelical readers to support the work of groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, my non-evangelical readers to rethink stereotypes they might hold about evangelical political behavior, and all my readers to write their representatives as the House considers immigration reform.

"Family unity is a fundamental family value" (2007 immigration rally)
Photo from 2007 immigrations rights rally in Washington, DC – Creative Commons (takomabibelot)

For more reporting on and analysis of evangelical support for immigration reform, see articles in Christianity Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, PolicyMic, and Huffington Post.

5 thoughts on “Evangelical Leadership on Immigration Reform

  1. As the grandson of Swedish immigrants who came to North America in the early post-World War I wave I have a deep love for this country’s tradition of acceptance of immigrants and refugees from around the world. However, the fundemental issue today with immigration is lawlessness. Non-enforcement of immigration laws for political gain by so-called “Sancuary Cities” has led to immunity from law not just amnesty. Welfare costs are bankrupting cities and states. Schools are over-whelmed with non-English speaking students. Hundreds of traffic deaths accross the country have been caused by drivers with no or fraud lincences. All, except in rare cases, without the legal consequences that any citizen would have pay.

    Now we have refugees that hate America and bomb us! just because you want to live in America doesn’t make you a good American. We don’t even exclude refugees that have made public statements that they want to overthrow the government of the United States.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Andrew. But it’s not necessary to pose a false choice between immigration reform on the one hand and the rule of law on the other (or to make your case by tossing out unsubstantiated assertions and reckless generalizations). Given the polarization of American politics, I think it speaks volumes that there is already a broad consensus (spanning political, religious, and ethnic divides) that finds it possible to achieve immigration reform without descending into “lawlessness.”

      1. Lawlessness is the proper concern. There many cases in Minnesota alone of fatal traffic accidents in Minnesota of illegal immigrants being deported rather having to stand trial for vehicular homocide.

        Welfare fraud – welfare should not be paid to any non-citizen, billions are paid yearly. Medical care – going to the doctor or hospital with no intention of ever paying for the service is stealing.

        The Boston bombers did come here as refugees. They went to the best public schools in Boston. The youngest one had a college scholarship for next year. And they still hated this country.

        Immigration reform will only proceed after:

        1. Improved border enforcement 2. A real Visa check policy 3. a worker e-verify
        systems with real penalties. — are all in place.

  2. Adding words to assertions ≠ substantiation. Provide nonpartisan studies showing evidence. But I get the sense that it would be a pointless road to go down: I can have conversation with someone about the contours of the problem and the nature of a solution, but someone who would proclaim his “deep love for this country’s tradition of acceptance of immigrants and refugees from around the world” and then use what happened in Boston as evidence against immigration reform isn’t likely to be a good conversation partner. (Trusting that you actually do want the US to welcome refugees… What kind of “improved border enforcement” would have protected against the Tsarnaevs? One was sixteen and the other was eight when they arrived in this country. By all the accounts I’ve read, whatever led to radicalization happened years later.)

    1. Not accepting refugees for radicalized regions would. As would a non-interventionist foreign policy. But back to immigration reform. Your three main impulses for evangelical leadership on immigration “reform” – Bibical, personal relationsionships, and numbers.

      Compassion for the least of these – people need to be able to come here for refuge and a better life. Can this be a national policy?

      Should the US let everybody come? Does any country except more immigrants than the US.? of course not.

      Does the country of origin of the majoriy of these “undocumented Immigrants” allow free immigration to its country. No, Mexico has repressive immigration laws compared to our. Illegal entry gets you two years in their prison system and than deported. These laws are applied very vigorously against people from Central America.

      Personal relationships. Everybody knows somebody with immigration “issues”. They are the greatest workers. They are fellow beleivers.

      Numbers. There are alot of them and they are not going home.

      These three give a moral, personal, and substantive basis to your rational. But even if we accept the premise : they are here and not going anywhere. We have to assimilate them into being Americans and we don’t agree on what that is anymore!

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