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

Schlafly agreed. "The American people want the government to enforce the laws we already have. The American people wanted a fence, for example, and I remember that Congress passed a law to build a fence and George W. Bush had a photo op signing the law to build the fence. Well, they never built it.

"When we turn on our TV and see a real, honest-to-goodness fence, we might talk again."

An immigration reform proposal introduced by a bipartisan group of eight senators in January has garnered the support of many top evangelical leaders.

The framework calls for an increase in manpower and equipment for border security and would create a commission to monitor enforcement. At the same time, it would grant probation to illegal immigrants who come forward and register with the government.

When asked if this proposal would guarantee the enforcement of immigration laws, James Edwards, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said "absolutely not." It would, however, grant de facto citizenship to illegal immigrants who go on probation, he said.

Family concern

The Southern Baptist Convention isn't the only high-profile conservative group involved with the Evangelical Immigration Table. Focus on the Family signed on in June.

Senior vice president of policy Tom Minnery said the group's position, while calling for a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, doesn't necessarily go as far as citizenship.

Concern for families living under the burden of potential deportation is the main reason Focus on the Family joined the coalition, he said.

Wall doesn't believe that reason is completely fair because immigrants who choose to come illegally know up front that deportation and family separation are risks they're taking. American families are separated every day when fathers or mothers commit crimes and go to jail.

"Are all the Americans who've committed crimes going to be released from jail?" he asked.

Minnery conceded that the concern over enforcement is legitimate. There's a "great lack of confidence" in the government to deliver, he said. "Without question, it will be up to the politicians to convince the public that this time a truly comprehensive solution is in the offing."

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.

The poll, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, found that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats shared this lack of confidence.

On leadership

Land insists that evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform is widespread, pointing to a 2011 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on the issue. It passed with an 80 percent vote, he said.

"But a lot of people simply aren't being represented," Wall counters. "I don't feel that all the people in the grass roots and in the pews have been informed about this."

American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer, also an evangelical, agreed and pointed to the Pulse Opinion Research survey. "The leadership of the evangelical community is almost completely out of alignment right now with ordinary evangelicals and ordinary Americans."

Why the disconnect?

"It's kind of a mystery to me," said Fischer, who calls many of the leaders friends. "They just seem to have all stampeded off the cliff on this issue together, like the psychology of lemmings, I guess.

"I think it's because of the shallow, superficial appeal of being considered compassionate by the mainstream media. They get a lot of fawning, favorable press, and they eat that up. They know the New York Times and Washington Post will say nice things about them."

Arguing compassion

Wall said faith leaders are trying to "guilt trip" congregations to support citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"It's shameless the way these evangelical leaders will take these arguments and put a thin veneer of religiosity on top of it. As a Christian, we do want to help the needy. And that's through Christian charity — a person giving his own resources in the name of Christ to the needy."

Fischer said that any discussion of compassion must also include compassion for the people who have been waiting in line for years to come legally, as well as compassion for American citizens who have borne welfare, law enforcement, education and medical care costs at a time when jobs are scarce and family finances are tight.

"I do think that evangelicals, because we place a high value on love and compassion, can easily be fooled into compromising justice based on a shallow understanding of compassion," he said.

email: dward@deseretnews.com

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