A large national survey shows that majorities of many different faiths want a path to citizenship for America's immigrants — and that one of the leading values behind that consensus is the desire to keep families together.
The poll of 4,500 people by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that majorities of Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Mormons agree that the immigration system should allow immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements.
The religious group with the smallest majority (56 percent) favoring a pathway to citizenship was white evangelical Protestants, who usually align with conservative Republicans on most social issues. But the survey found all subgroups it examined within the GOP, except those who identify with the tea party, backed a way to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"On many occasions religious groups line up on opposite sides of an issue, but we have a remarkable consensus by religious Americans on this issue," said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of PRRI. "It's an area where we have seen widespread organization by religious groups."
If Congress acts on what appears to be a growing consensus for immigration reform, Americans across all religions want specific values to guide policymakers, according to the survey.
The top two values, as rated by Americans, are protecting national security (84 percent of Americans said this is very or extremely important) and keeping families together (also 84 percent). Other values with a religious overlay are protecting the dignity of every person (82 percent), following the Golden Rule (69 percent), and following the biblical teachings of caring for strangers (50 percent).
"Values are most powerful when they have general and religious resonance," Jones said.
The survey comes as Republicans in both the House and Senate are warming to the idea of comprehensive immigration reform. On Wednesday, conservatives in the House said they could support an immigration reform plan in line with one proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., which would hinge on verification that the border is secure.
A group of eight senators has been working since January to develop a proposal that could be introduced before the end of the month. President Obama and Democratic leaders have also made immigration reform a top priority.
Only 24 percent of those surveyed said immigration reform should be the highest priority for the president and Congress, but an additional 47 percent said it should be a high priority.
The economic downturn and the tea party's success in the 2010 election kept immigration reform from happening then despite public discontent with the immigration system. But the 2012 election created political will to address the issue, the survey said.
In addition to Obama making immigration reform a priority during his re-election campaign, the election showed the political clout of Hispanic voters, particularly in Western battleground states.
"Obama’s lopsided margin among these voters provided strong incentives for both parties, but especially Republicans who had been opposed to immigration reform, to make immigration reform a more significant priority," the survey stated.
But faith leaders have also been at work for the past decade convincing congregants that immigration reform is a religious issue, primarily for Bible-believing Christians.
"It's encouraging to see some of the work we have been doing is paying off," said Matt Soerens, a training specialist with World Relief, the humanitarian arm of National Association of Evangelicals.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said pastors have been encouraged for the past several years to learn about the issue and preach it from the pulpit as a biblical imperative to care for the stranger.
"We support it because of the biblical admonition of caring for the strangers in our midst. There is also the dignity of citizenship status," he said.
In fact, white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants were the only groups where the biblical teachings on strangers registered as a moral guide as important as the Golden Rule, which the survey defined as "providing immigrants the same opportunities I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S."
Respondents were asked to choose between three options for immigration reform: Allowing immigrants a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements; allowing them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens; and identifying and deporting them.
Only among those affiliating with the tea party was there less than majority support for a path to citizenship. Tea party evangelicals had the lowest support at 44 percent.
Land said he is not surprised at widespread support for a plan that allows citizenship, or at lackluster backing for the middle-ground position of legal status without citizenship.
"You don't want to create a permanent underclass in the U.S. like they have in Europe," he said. "It's contrary to the American ideal to say, 'You can be here but you can't be a citizen.'"
Hispanic Catholics voiced the highest support (74 percent) for a system that would allow a pathway to citizenship with certain requirements, followed by Hispanic Protestants at 71 percent and black Protestants at 70 percent. Jewish Americans (67 percent), Mormons (63 percent), white Catholics (62 percent), white mainline Protestants (61 percent), and white evangelical Protestants (56 percent) also agreed.
Among the requirements evangelicals want are registration, background checks, fines for entering the country unlawfully, payment of current and back taxes, obeying laws during probationary period, identification cards and learning English, according to Soeren and Land, both members of the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable.