Texans of Richard Land’s generation were so accustomed to Hispanic culture that when they went north they often complained — along with Californians, Arizonans, and other Anglos in the American Southwest — that they couldn’t even find edible Mexican food.
In the 21st century, all of that has changed. Excellent Hispanic cuisine is found all over this country, and it comes not just from Mexico, but El Salvador, Guatemala, and other points south of the Rio Grande. And those migrants are not all Roman Catholics, anymore, either. Many are Pentecostals, Baptists, and non-denominational Protestants of every description.
Today, notes Richard Land, the most prominent leader of the Southern Baptist church in this country, you cannot drive from Richmond, Va., to Los Angeles without passing a Baptist church of any size without seeing the words “Iglesia Bautista” attached to it.
“We’re called evangelicals because we evangelize,” he told RCP. “We evangelize and they became Baptists.”
But cultural assimilation in the United States has always been a two-way transaction.
The immigrants who come here are changed by the experience, even while they are changing their adopted nation. So it is all the more fitting that the newest wave of immigrants, especially those who find a church home, are altering the dynamics of this nation’s difficult and often divisive discussion of what do with the estimated 11 million pilgrims who have come here without proper papers and taken up residence irrespective of their legal status.
In our partisan, politically polarised environment, the battle lines are often drawn — at least in political activists’ minds — before the argument is even joined.
Liberals are presumed to favour amnesty for illegals both because of their bleeding hearts and a cynical calculus (i.e., legalization is an easy way to immediately mint millions of new Democratic voters). Conservatives’ hostility to legalization is also presumed, at least by elites, who attribute nativist attitudes to a predominately white, and somewhat fearful, Republican electorate.
What that leaves out of the equation is what’s actually happening in the nation’s pews.
“Evangelicals take seriously the many texts in Scripture regarding welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the sojourner, and the neglected,” says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics & Public Policy centre, a Washington think tank. “This sensibility makes them far more open to immigration than many would imagine.”
Citing various passages from the Bible, most especially the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, a coalition of prominent evangelical groups is pushing Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, and specifically a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. The alliance, which includes Land’s Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, often cites that famous passage from Matthew: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
Evangelicals have favoured comprehensive immigration reform for years, but they now see a political and economic climate that is especially receptive for successful legislation. Their coalition, The Evangelical Immigration Table, wrote a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders asking that any plan include the opportunity for illegal residents to gain citizenship.
That component, as evangelical leaders know, is a stumbling block on Capitol Hill, where conservatives are concerned about the term “amnesty.”
This is still a big hurdle, but the Republican Party has traveled a great distance in the past 12 months. It was only a year ago that Mitt Romney tried to score points against Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a Republican presidential debate by declaring that the answer to illegal immigration was “self-deportation.”
Congressional Republicans have, for the most part, put that kind of talk behind them. But what they fear is a repeat of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed by President Reagan, that granted amnesty to nearly 3 million people, most of them from Mexico, but which did nothing to control the tide of illegal immigration — and may have made the border even more porous.
Today, the focus is whether and how to legalise the undocumented or give them a chance to eventually become full citizens. Conservatives are coming around to the idea, but are careful in their language.
“What we’re discussing is a path to a green card,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the architects of impending Senate legislation. “It’s important to understand that you can’t just apply for citizenship, even now.”
Rubio and other key players welcome the efforts of the faith groups, but they are also trying to make certain the push from outside actors doesn’t muddle their message.
“I think the evangelicals are asking for us to be humane and compassionate,” the Florida senator told RCP. “But they also understand we have to be responsible — that what we do, whatever we come up with, does have to honour our tradition as a compassionate nation and a compassionate people, but we also have to do it in a way that makes sure we are being fair to the people who are doing it the right way, and in a way that doesn’t encourage illegal immigration in the future.”
Rubio, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the United States, spoke in starkly more inclusive terms about immigration during 2012 than the eventual GOP presidential nominee. Not coincidentally, Rubio is frequently mentioned as a likely 2016 national candidate.
“Evangelical groups [help] us to see this issue not only as a statistical one,” he said, “but also as a human one — and that’s a great contribution.”
Evangelicals are also helping in more material ways. Richard Land’s group, for instance, is running ads in South Carolina supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose efforts at finding a comprehensive solution have alienated part of the Republican’s conservative base in his state, where Graham is up for re-election this year. Graham himself has termed the evangelicals’ efforts to rally support around him — and immigration legislation — “a game changer.”
Two prominent evangelicals, Columbia businessman Hal Stevenson and Baptist pastor Jim Goodroe, recently co-authored an op-ed in a South Carolina newspaper headlined “Faith commends a kinder look at immigrants in our midst.”
Of the large 2010 freshman Republican class, 15 members are practicing Southern Baptists, Land points out. One of them, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, now chairs an immigration subcommittee. Democrats credit him for humanising the issue.
Gowdy hasn’t yet embraced the citizenship pathway, but church leaders in his district are providing cover if he does.
“Reform must include a tough but fair path to citizenship that holds these aspiring Americans accountable but also helps them realise the full rights and responsibilities that make our country a beacon of freedom,” stated the op-ed by Stevenson and Goodroe in the Charleston Post and Courier.
The authors also make an economic case: “The Palmetto State’s economy features a growing high-tech sector and a booming tourism industry, and immigrants are an important part of both,” they wrote. “Taking away just those without papers would sacrifice $1.8 billion in economic activity and more than 12,000 jobs.”
For Republicans, another argument in favour of changing their tone on immigration is the simple exigencies of electoral politics. If Mitt Romney had garnered the same percentage of Latino votes as George W. Bush did, he’d have carried Virginia and Florida, and been very close to President Obama in the popular vote.
In the aftermath, party leaders recognise how the stronger part of the base can help with major weaknesses.
“The issue of immigration reform has been a roadblock to our success to large swaths of the Hispanic community,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. “Clearly a large part of our base is the evangelical community, but in the same way we need to grow our presence there as well. In many ways, we can take our strength for granted.”
The evangelical community can provide an important infrastructure when it comes to garnering support for immigration reform. Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime reform advocate who is working on legislation in the House, said the churches have the microphone, the pulpit (literally) and the constituency.
“In 2009, when I and others believed the president was not working as he should [on immigration legislation], we visited over 30 cities, and evangelicals opened their doors,” he said. “How do you do this if you don’t have an NAACP of sorts for immigrants?”
None of this is to suggest that a consensus yet exists on this issue among devout Christians, among voters generally, or among Republicans. One naysayer is Iowa Rep. Steve King, a prominent social conservative and vocal opponent of amnesty to illegal immigrants.
“I think they should go back and study their Scripture a little deeper,” said King. “I think they should go back and study some of the translations from Greek and Hebrew: When they say, ‘I was a stranger from a foreign land and you took me in,’ the Greek word for that means ‘invited guest’ not a stranger, not an alien, not someone who was by law prohibited from being there, but an invited guest.”
Yet even the Iowa congressman, a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014, concedes that the larger Christian message has broad resonance.
“Faithful people — pastors and priests, in particular — they have a great heart and a soul for the people, and that ministry doesn’t know borders,” he said. “So it’s hard for them to see why borders need to be enforced.”
The evangelical push for reform isn’t new, and their previous efforts were not enough to prop up a bill that failed in 2007, despite having initial support from President Bush and Sen. John McCain and (but not Sen. Barack Obama).
But the landscape is different now — and evangelical voters know they have some credibility because they did not desert the Republican Party in 2012. They know the GOP needs them, along with some Hispanic support, to remain viable in future national elections.
How much influence will this give them on immigration? Perhaps a great deal. “You can seldom do wrong,” Richard Land noted, “appealing to the enlightened self-interest of some politicians.”
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.
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