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Not so fast: Evangelicals differ with their leaders on immigration reform

Many leaders support citizenship moves, but rank and file differ

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 11:35 p.m. MST

A survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted in January found that 70 percent were not confident the government would keep its promise to enforce immigration laws if it grants legal status to illegal immigrants.

Nick Ut, Associated Press

It's been in the headlines for months.

"Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes."

"Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform."

"Obama's immigration plan encourages evangelicals."

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it's not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Yes, scores of leaders, including prominent conservatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, have signed on to such coalitions as the Evangelical Immigration Table, Christian Churches Together and G92 — all of which advocate for comprehensive reform.

But among the rank and file, the attitude is something closer to "not so fast."

Allan Wall, an Oklahoma schoolteacher and practicing evangelical who writes about immigration, put it this way: "Despite the stereotype of some kind of monolithic army of evangelical zombies being controlled by their leaders, in reality it's a rather fractious bunch."

Data appear to support Wall's view. A June 2012 Pew Forum survey found that evangelicals prioritize "better border security" over "creating a path to citizenship" by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. Among the American public in general, the ratio is 1 to 1.

The sense among many, if not most, evangelicals is that the government will grant citizenship to illegal immigrants, but not hold up the enforcement end of the bargain.

Show the enforcement

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum, estimates that roughly 80 percent of her roughly 30,000-member organization is evangelical.

"I don't hear any of them saying they support these ideas to give legal residency to illegal immigrants," she said.

Schlafly points to past disappointments as the reason for their views.

"The thing is, we tried this amnesty with Reagan and it was a big failure. In fact, it was a big fraud. And if you keep doing the same thing, why are you going to get a different result?"

But Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, bristled at the notion that current proposals constitute amnesty.

Land, along with eight other evangelical leaders, heads the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group of more than 100 pastors, academics and other leaders calling for a bipartisan solution on immigration.

"What we're proposing is not amnesty," he said. "If you have to pay a fine and back taxes, and you have to learn to read, write and speak English to stay here and you have to go on probationary status, that's not amnesty."

Wall, who lived in Mexico for 15 years and whose wife is Mexican, isn't buying it. "We're not very confident the government is going to do all these things — the back taxes and showing English proficiency — because of the simple fact that the Obama administration right now is not enforcing the law anyway."

He said that if lawmakers first concentrated on security, he could see people warming up to other measures.

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