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Evangelical leaders’ hard push on immigration reform belies divided membership

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 5:47 a.m. MDT

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, speaks about immigration reform legislation by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, April 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press) Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., flanked by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, speaks about immigration reform legislation by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, April 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — More than 300 evangelical pastors gathered on Capitol Hill Wednesday for an Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform. The event coincided with the filing of an immigration reform bill earlier that morning by a bipartisan group of senators.

As reported by CNN, the pastors, who are part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, or EIT, stopped short of formally endorsing the 844-page Senate bill, saying they would first need time to read it.

“What we are heralding is the principles we outlined close to two years ago,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, senior pastor of Lamb's Church in New York City.

In addition to holding a press conference and prayer walk, EIT leaders conducted more than 80 meetings with members of Congress, according to Christian Post.

Cristian Paniagua, 11, of Takoma Park, Md., left, holds a U.S. flag next to a child holding the flag of El Salvador as they attend the "Rally for Citizenship" on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, where tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters were expected to rally for immigration reform. (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press) Cristian Paniagua, 11, of Takoma Park, Md., left, holds a U.S. flag next to a child holding the flag of El Salvador as they attend the "Rally for Citizenship" on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, where tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters were expected to rally for immigration reform. (Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

"We're here to say that immigration reform has strong evangelical support," Salguero said.

The pastor's comments, while illustrative of the solidarity among evangelical leaders, belie the divided state of those in the pews on the issue of citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The New York Times reported on April 14 that while "no prominent pastor has spoken out against the immigration (reform) effort ... accord has been less broad among the faithful."

A survey released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, indicates that just over half — 56 percent — of evangelicals believe that immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.

Rev. Gabriel Salguero speaks during a news conference, with other religious leaders to remember the lives lost in Newtown, Conn., at Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 21. (Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press) Rev. Gabriel Salguero speaks during a news conference, with other religious leaders to remember the lives lost in Newtown, Conn., at Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 21. (Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press)

That percentage is essentially unchanged since at least 2006, when the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of evangelicals favored "allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and the possibility of citizenship in the future."

Whether pastors' efforts will erode those numbers in the weeks leading up to a vote remains to be seen. A 2010 Pew Forum poll found that only 7 percent of Americans considered religion the most important influence on their view of immigration policy.

It may be an uphill climb for the pastors. A March PRRI poll showed that 63 percent of evangelicals believe the nation "should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries" — 20 percent higher than the national average."

Seeking to counter criticism that the bill provides amnesty to the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said:

“From what we understand, the bill that dropped this morning has accountability for those who are here in an undocumented status. It provides an earned pathway to full legal status and then to citizenship for those who want it. That is not amnesty in any dictionary in the English language.”

Email: dward@deseretnews.com

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