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Peter Bates,
More than two-thirds of America's evangelical Christians support both immigration reform and enhanced border security, a survey revealed Wednesday. Supporters say they're acting from biblical motivations to help others.

A majority of evangelical Christians say Congress should pass immigration reform, while they are split over the economic impact of immigration and they would like to hear more about the issue over the pulpit, according to a news survey.

More than two-thirds of evangelical Christians support immigration reform and enhanced border security, a survey conducted by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based evangelical research firm, found. But evangelical approbation is not without concerns on various fronts.

Although evangelicals believe the immigration issue must be resolved, they're divided on the impact of recent immigrants on the United States. Forty-eight percent of respondents said the new immigrants "are a drain on economic resources." Most of those saying this, LifeWay said, were in the 35 to the over-65 age group, roughly twice as many as the 26 percent in the 18-34 age bracket who agreed with that statement.

Evangelical pastors on the front lines concede the issue raises concerns within their congregations.

"My kids have friends in school (whose) parents may not speak English, but they are working hard," said Ryan Perz, pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Orange City, Iowa. "Unless I'm blind in my community, (immigration is) an issue."

However, Perz said there was "disagreement" in his 50-member congregation over the issue.

"Not everyone is united," he said. But Perz believes the "church is called to love people, not to legislate. We need to love the immigrants in our community and give them a path, that's what I hope the church wants to see."

Outreach opportunity

Perz spoke Wednesday the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group seeking congressional action on the issue, released the results of LifeWay's survey of 1,000 self-identified American evangelicals.

Six in 10 evangelicals say Congress should establish a "path" toward either citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants, while 9 out of 10 say the border must be made more secure. Perhaps reflecting internal conflicts over the question, 16 percent of evangelicals said they were "uncertain" about affirming both positions.

Some evangelicals eye a religious outreach opportunity among the newcomers, with 42 percent saying they believe the number of recent immigrants offers "an opportunity to introduce them to Jesus Christ." Younger evangelicals are more outreach-minded, the survey revealed with nearly half of those 35 to 64 agreeing with the outreach idea, versus only 29 percent of those over 65.

A scant 2 percent of evangelicals said they had heard from their churches about the issue, although 68 percent said they'd value hearing a sermon on the topic. Only one in five evangelicals said they'd ever received encouragement from their congregation to interact with the immigrants in their midst.

However, 12 percent of evangelicals said their study of the Bible influenced their views on immigration, the survey indicated.

Biblical issue

Evangelical support for a path to citizenship for the undocumented falls short of the 87 percent of Americans who told the Gallup Organization in 2013 they'd vote for a "multifaceted" pathway to citizenship. The 90 percent of evangelicals who want increased border security mirrors Gallup's 83 percent who agreed with that statement two years ago.

The overall evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform is encouraging to the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of the Lamb's Church in New York City and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

"Our prayer is that Congress can follow the example of this evangelical coalition and pass immigration reform this year," he said during a telephone conference call announcing the results.

Speaking with the Deseret News, Salguero said that to the evangelicals with whom he works, "this is a Matthew 25 issue, a Bible issue of how we treat the strangers. What has me tickled pink is this is a broad coalition of whites, Latinos, African-Americans and young evangelicals."

Kevin McBride, who has pastored congregations in Massachusetts, Maine and now New Hampshire, agreed with Salguero about a biblical basis for their activism.

"For me, in an ongoing thing, it's a biblical mandate to take care of the poor and the oppressed, which is throughout scripture," said McBride, who currently pastors the Raymond Baptist Church. "As Christians, we're called to help."

McBride said he hopes Congress would go "back to the fundamental principles, of respect" for immigrants and their families. Today, he said, "the system works against them."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner