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Evangelical coalition sees opportunity for immigration reform

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13 2012 9:06 p.m. MST

A broad coalition of evangelical Christian organizations is quickly taking advantage of an apparent move toward immigration reform in Washington and has called on the president and Congress to begin tackling the issue in 92 days.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — A broad coalition of evangelical leaders, seeing a political opportunity to address immigration on the federal level, on Tuesday renewed its call for President Obama and Congress to begin tackling the historically divisive issue within the first three months of next year.

Letters from the Evangelical Immigration Table have been sent to Obama and House and Senate leadership requesting meetings between the lawmakers and the group's leaders and urging them to introduce legislation within the first 92 days of Obama's second term. The timeline is in reference to the number of times "ger," the Hebrew word for stranger or immigrant, appears in the Bible.

The time frame also underscores the approach religious organizations take on immigration, which isn't always political.

"For us it's not most about politics, it's most about Bible teaching and relationships," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and one of the principals of the coalition, which is comprised of liberal, conservative and Latino leaders of the national evangelical community.

The Bible teaches how people should treat their neighbors and "newcomers to the land," he said, and evangelicals interact with immigrants at church, in schools and in the immigrants' native countries where missionaries have worked for generations.

The Evangelical Immigration Table's announcement follows calls from other business and political groups since last week's election for the president and Congress to reach a bipartisan solution to immigration. The letters are the evangelical group's second attempt this year to put immigration on Congress' radar.

Since Election Day, however, a political window has opened that influenced the trio of letters the Evangelical Immigration Table sent out Tuesday.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged Obama to take the lead in coming up with a plan that would look at both improved enforcement of immigration law and the future of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.

Over the weekend, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also disclosed they have resumed talks on immigration policy that broke off two years ago and have put together an immigration reform blueprint that has "the real potential for bipartisan support based on the theory that most Americans are for legal immigration, but very much against illegal immigration."

Anderson said those comments show "the political momentum is moving toward immigration reform."

"We have a unique moment right now to achieve this goal and we plan to move forward with it," added Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In their letters, the Evangelical Immigration Table asks that the bipartisan solution respect the God-given dignity of every person, protect the unity of the immediate family, respect the rule of law, guarantee secure national borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path toward legal status or citizenship.

Immigration policy has been largely ignored since President George W. Bush's proposal for reform died in 2007. Immigration was seldom a topic mentioned from the pulpit during church services leading up to the 2012 election, surveys by the Pew Research Center showed. Abortion and same-sex marriage were more often preached to churchgoers from the minority of pastors who chose to speak about politics.

But the issue has resurfaced as a way for Republicans to rebound from their election performance, in which more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama, who has committed to addressing comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

"Hispanic evangelicals make up 10 percent of the electorate and in the coming years that number will grow," said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “This election season split our country, but today we come together in an unprecedented show of unity within the evangelical community — black, white, Hispanic and Asian."

The Evangelical Immigration Table first unveiled its immigration reform plan to Congress in June and urged them to address the issue the during the election year. The table represents about 150 evangelical organizations across the country that includes thousands of churches and millions of Protestant churchgoers.

The Roman Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also signed on and supported local efforts for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform.

State lawmakers, including Utah's Legislature, have also moved ahead during the past five years with their own immigration initiatives, some of which have been challenged in federal court for overstepping into federal jurisdiction.

Business, labor and local governments are also organizing to push for immigration reform.

These coalitions of strange bedfellows in faith, business and government should give the president and Congress the political will to reach a bipartisan solution to immigration, said Jeremy Robbins, director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of 500 mayors and business leaders making a case for immigration reform.

"The reality is there are a lot of extremely persuasive reasons for immigration reform, and different ones resonate with different groups," Robbins said. "The evangelical vote is a huge portion of the electorate, so (the letters from the Evangelical Immigration Table) should have huge influence" on the push for reform.

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