Immigration was one of the most hotly contested issues in the 2016 campaign for the presidency. Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is particularly contentious. Because it would offer a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented people living in the United States, CIR is caught between the politics of justice and the ethics of mercy. The US government has made little progress toward CIR, and after the rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign the road forward is uncertain at best. Despite several attempts in the last few years, Congress has failed to enact substantive legislation; the Senate passed a CIR act in 2013 but for a variety of reasons, the House let the effort die. And while President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration late in 2014, his controversial proposals have stalled in the courts.
In this intense political context, a number of religious organizations have been significantly involved in supporting CIR. The press has followed with particular interest the efforts by those evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon leaders who strongly support CIR. These leaders—especially the evangelical ones—are generally seen as fighting an uphill battle even with their own constituencies, as polls continue to show that significant portions of lay adherents are skeptical of CIR. Furthermore, a significant number of the Republican legislators who are opposed to CIR are themselves evangelical, Catholic, or Mormon.
The religious politics of the immigration issue are clear: if CIR is ever to pass, increasing the level of support (or at least decreasing opposition) among evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons will be essential. Pro-CIR evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon leaders are unlikely to have significant influence on the particulars of CIR legislation, but they could play a crucial role in building political and congregational support. Although other religious interest groups, including Jewish and mainline Protestant organizations, have been active in supporting CIR for some time, they are less visible, as their support for such issues is often taken as given. Black Protestant organizations and leaders, though empathetic to the issue when framed as a civil rights concern, are not particularly outspoken on this issue.
The efforts by evangelical Protestants to support CIR have received a great deal of media attention, in part because it is surprising to see theologically conservative leaders out in front on this. Many wonder if pro-CIR evangelical leaders have very many actual evangelical followers on this issue and what their potential impact might be. Indeed, according to exit polling data, 58 percent of Protestants in general and 81 percent of white in evangelicals in particular voted for Trump, who based much of his campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Nonetheless, at the elite level, a significant cohort of evangelical leaders has indeed been instrumental in supporting versions of CIR that attempt to balance moral imperatives of justice and mercy. Their leadership on immigration has become significant enough that the Obama administration has considered top evangelical leaders a “go to” religious group on the question of reform, labeled his “evangelical cabinet on immigration reform.” These leaders include, for instance, Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, and Richard Land of the Souther Baptist Convention (recently succeeded by Russell Moore).
In May 2014, President Obama met with law enforcement officials and encouraged them to work with evangelicals and businesses to help, “get us over the finish line” to pass CIR, highlighting that, “the evangelical Christian community has shown itself to be foursquare behind immigration reform, and that’s a powerful voice.”
It certainly wasn’t always this way. Hispanic evangelical groups, including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) and Esperanza became outspoken in their support for immigration reform, and were especially active during the 2006-2007 national debate over CIR. And George W. Bush—who consistently received strong electoral support from white evangelicals—pledged to push some form of CIR when he first ran for the presidency in 2000. But when his administration finally did prioritize CIR in 2006, there were only a few notable examples of evangelical support. One was the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2006 resolution in favor of a form of CIR, calling for the federal government to provide border security and for churches to encourage immigrants “toward the path of legal status and/or citizenship.” Citing scriptural support for the rule of law alongside scriptural opposition to unjust laws, the organization Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) in 2007 was formed by Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action (both of which are sometimes referred to as representing the “evangelical left”), as well as World Relief (the Relief and Development arm of the National Association of Evangelicals), and a number of mainline Protestant and other non-evangelical constituencies.
However, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) did not make a formal resolution in support of CIR until the fall of 2009. Thereafter, the NAE took up the issue in earnest. In June 2012, around the same time the Obama administration addressed the issue, the NAE, World Relief, and others helped launch the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) and over 150 key evangelical leaders signed on to support immigration reform. Today EIT has over 1,600 signatories.
The EIT includes leaders from organizations like Sojourners, World Vision, National Association of Evangelicals, Focus on the Family, and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, as well as the NHCLC and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. These leaders have been able to agree upon key principles including support for legislation that would help unite families, respect dignity of all, uphold rule of law, establish a path toward legal status and/or citizenship, secure borders, and ensure fairness to taxpayers.
The EIT has used a number of mechanisms to push for CIR. When the possibility of federal legislative immigration reform was at its height in 2013-2014, EIT launched a major 400,000 dollar Christian radio ad campaign, along with a billboard blitz targeting fifty-six congressional districts in fourteen key states. In it they called upon Christians to become prayer partners, and some 60,000 people signed on. EIT organizations like World Relief and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) have worked with churches to encourage pastors’ teaching on the subject, holding seminars and Sunday school classes on immigration.
They are trying to reach (what some claim is) a silent majority of evangelicals who support some form of immigration reform. They hope that this silent majority will become a vocal one.
EIT members have written blogs targeting Christian young people, hosted conferences, organized clubs on college campuses, and held rallies and marches. They are trying to reach (what some claim is) a silent majority of evangelicals who support some form of immigration reform. They hope that this silent majority will become a vocal one. World Relief commissioned me to undertake research within congregations to evaluate the efficacy of immigration teaching/preaching resource efforts, and EIT has also commissioned broader public opinion research by Lifeway to try to discern the varying causes of evangelical opinion on immigration and to publicize nuanced accounts of what average evangelicals actually believe on the issue.
At the policy level, EIT members have lobbied members of Congress and the executive branch, issued formal policy statements, written letters to the President and to congressional members, lobbied key legislators in the House and the Senate, and targeted efforts among evangelical leaders and politicians in key states including Colorado, Florida, and Texas. Members continue to write op-eds and are interviewed across the country in an attempt to counter immigrant bashing by President-elect Donald Trump. Ultimately, they want to challenge the popular assumption that evangelicals oppose CIR.
This advocacy and ministry complements evangelicals’ own individual organizational and denominational efforts. Hispanic evangelical organizations like the NHCLC push their members to attend town hall meetings and visit district offices, while its leaders have been speaking out and writing on the issue. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which represents 16 million members and is the largest Protestant denomination in US, passed a 2011 resolution on immigration, and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission leader Russell Moore has written extensively on the issue and sent a letter in 2013 to every senator urging support of CIR. The SBC, World Relief and other evangelical groups, by welcoming Syrian refugees to the US, have ignored the proposed ban on Muslim refugees put forward by Trump.
To be sure, pro-CIR evangelical leaders do not always agree on the specifics of how to best implement immigration reform. For example, although Russell Moore prays that the church will transcend the partisan divide on the issue, he disagrees with President Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration offering temporary protection for up to 5 million immigrants. Meanwhile, his evangelical colleague Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, recognizes the limitations of Obama’s action, but considers the executive order “merciful” given government failures on the issue. Though the EIT as a coalition has been officially silent on Obama’s maneuver, on the whole, these evangelical leaders continue to clamor for legislative action on the issue.
This increasing activism raises the question: is growing support for immigration by evangelical leaders simply a question of demographics and the wooing of Hispanic parishioners? Changing demographics are part of the story, but not enough to explain the gradual, principled shift of evangelical leadership taking place over the last decade. Arguably, the trend toward supporting reform has come about for a variety of reasons, including (1) many congregations have grown more multi-ethnic; (2) evangelical political agendas have broadened to include more than the two traditional evangelical issues (life and marriage); and (3) new Christian leaders (including Hispanic evangelicals) have assumed key positions in American evangelicalism, resulting in a diversifying of evangelical social and political engagement.
Evangelicals are not alone in their support for comprehensive immigration reform. Catholics have been key leaders in the movement for reform for several decades, and their support for CIR has only increased in recent years. As the largest church in the US, representing over 67 million members, their advocacy has received significant media coverage. Notably, in a 2003 joint statement of the Catholic Bishops in the US and Mexico, the bishops maintained that the church is compelled by scripture to care for strangers and show love to one’s neighbor. They also turn to church teachings, drawing upon the writings of Pope Pius XII, affirming the right to migrate, and those of Pope John Paul II, who, writing in reference to the American Catholic church, called upon the church to welcome immigrants, to help them settle and thus enrich society. They also affirm to the right of national sovereignty, to secure one’s borders, and to enforce the law in a humane manner.
In 2005, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the archdiocese of Los Angeles helped establish the Justice for Immigrants Campaign to press President Bush and Congress to adopt reform and to speak out against HR 4437 (a bill sponsored by Congressman Sensenbrenner which focused on security and border enforcement). Under the UCSSB, Justice for Immigrants continues to press for CIR, offers parish resources, and puts forth editorials, press releases, and amicus briefs.
In February of 2013, the USCCB and numerous other Christians organizations came together to support CIR in a collective fashion via Christian Churches Together. This ecumenical forum of leaders from the Catholic, Black Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical/Pentecostal and Historic/Mainline Protestant churches put forth a joint statement on February 1, 2013, supportive of a standard form of CIR including a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, family reunification, border integrity, due process for immigrants, improved refugee laws, and the need to address root causes of migration.
In September 2014, the USCCB pushed bishops and priests to speak on immigration from the pulpit, and they called on some sixty Republican Catholic lawmakers and held prayer marches in key districts. As Kevin Appleby, Director of the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, said, in their effort to influence the 2013-2014 immigration debate, “we want to try to pull out all the stops.”
In June 2014 the Catholic lobbying group NETWORK “sponsored a 15 state, 40 city, 53 stop, 6,500 mile Nuns on the bus tour” to lobby legislators in their districts. And In July 2013, ninety Catholic college presidents (one-third of them) signed a letter urging Catholic legislators to support reform. They called for a stop to the abuse and exploitation of immigrants, highlighted the need to create a path to legalization, and asked for the adoption of a humane approach. They highlighted the benefits of immigrants to congregations and colleges, pushing the House on the issue. Soon after the college presidents signed this letter, Catholic Rep. Garcia (D), a member of the Judiciary committee and its subcommittee on immigration and border security, put pressure on parishes and colleges as well, and pushed Catholic leaders to preach on this.
Pope Francis has taken a key role on the issue, calling on all parishes worldwide to house refugees. In his address to the US Congress in 2015, he called on lawmakers to consider refugees as humans, not numbers, and to treat them in a “humane, just, and fraternal” manner. He continues to call on the US to treat immigrants with compassion, especially given the forced migration of many who come here. U.S. Catholic voters, however, did come out in favor of Trump, with 52 percent of Catholics overall and 60 percent of white Catholics voting for him.
In today’s charged environment, Catholic leaders have been quick to denounce proposed bans on Muslim immigrants. And while the Catholic church, like evangelical and Mormon churches, is perceived by some as being motivated merely by demographic reasons to support CIR, the church claims that it is compelled to do so due to Biblical and church teachings on social justice. Given that national legislative efforts are at a standstill, Catholic efforts, like those of evangelicals, are now focused on speaking, editorializing, lobbying, and parish education. Some 41 percent of Catholics report hearing about immigration at mass according to an August 2016 Pew survey.
In recent years, the Mormon church has also demonstrated a willingness to back immigration reform. In 2010, the church endorsed, although its leaders didn’t sign, the bipartisan Utah compact, an agreement between politicians, business people, and civic leaders supporting immigration reform in Utah. The compact calls for a humane approach to immigrants and keeping families together. In part, it was a response to the passage of the infamous SB 1070 in Arizona, a bill seen by many in the church as a troubling approach to immigration (and one sponsored by a Mormon, Russell Pearce, former Senate president in Arizona). The Utah compact signaled church unwillingness for the same type of legislation to go forward in Utah.
Many Mormons found the Arizona approach inhospitable and contrary to church efforts to evangelize globally. A Pew 2011 survey found that a higher proportion of Mormons who have been on a two-year global mission believe immigrants strengthen society than those Mormons who have not. Many Mormon leaders, including former Senator Bob Bennett, have been outspoken in defense of Muslim immigrants, perhaps unsurprising given Mormons’ own history as a persecuted religious minority.
In today’s charged environment, Catholic leaders have been quick to denounce proposed bans on Muslim immigrants. The church claims that it is compelled to do so due to Biblical and church teachings on social justice.
In 2011, the Mormon Church supported Utah legislation that offered temporary legal status to immigrants. Presiding Bishop H. David Burton stood behind Governor Gary Herbert when he signed the bill into law. However, the start date has been stalled by the Utah House, which is waiting for a federal waiver on the issue. The bill may be repealed altogether.
Nationally, President Obama has pushed Mormon church leadership to lobby for reform and views church support for the Utah compact as evidence that conservatives can indeed get behind immigration reform. In the past few years, the church has continued to urge compassionate responses on the issue, while some opponents desire greater emphasis on the rule of law. The church has stood with its commitment to immigration reform, though efforts have declined given the standstill in US legislative efforts. While the church has not come out directly in support of Obama’s executive actions (DACA and DAPA), it voices continued support for legislative action.
Former Republican Presidential candidate and Mormon politician Mitt Romney was out in front of the Never Trump campaign, arguing against a campaign that centered on making “scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants,” and playing on white fears to garner support. Although Mormons tend to vote decidedly Republican (more so than any other religious group according to the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape survey), and 61 percent of Mormons supported Trump in the 2016 election, key Mormon leaders were critical of President-elect Trump during his campaign on this particular issue.
In their 2013 study “Religion, Values, and Immigration Reform,” the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute show that religious respondents do favor a pathway to citizenship for immigrants if some consequences for breaking the law are included. When security concerns and the payment of fines and back taxes are addressed, and the learning of English is incorporated into immigration reform proposals, a majority of all religious groups, evangelicals included (white and otherwise), favor a path to citizenship. When compared to the general public, however, white evangelicals are the religious group most negative toward CIR, passively and/or actively resisting the arguments being made by pro-CIR evangelical elites.
It has been shown that experiences within the church can temper those negative attitudes toward the immigrant and policy (namely, having proximity to immigrants in the pew, and hearing positive messages about immigration from the pulpit). However, church teaching on these issues is not frequent (less than 15 percent of white evangelicals reported hearing such messages in church) nor is proximity to immigrants in the pew common (only 17 percent had some or many immigrants in their churches in Pew’s 2010 Religion and Public Life Survey).
As EIT, USCCB, and Mormon church leaders have done, encouraging clergy to speak out, engaging with congregations in adult education sessions and other forums, encouraging immigrant support programs within local congregations, and building diverse congregations could provide some of the counter signals necessary to shift religious conservatives’ opinions in support of immigrants and CIR.
In sum, the work being done collaboratively and individually by varying evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon leaders and organizations is quite impressive–and appears to be of growing importance politically. However, it appears that more needs to be done internally, within religious communities themselves—especially within predominantly white evangelical communities. Religious cues need to be made within houses of worship to balance the relentless cues being received from alternative sources. The question going forward is whether faith cues or Fox News cues will have the more enduring effect on our political culture.
Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College. Her scholarly interests include Latin America, immigration, and religion and international affairs.
This essay is adapted from a panel presentation, “Welcoming the Stranger: Religion and Immigration,” at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, September 25, 2013.
 Melkonian-Hoover, 2010. “Better Late Than Never? Evangelicals and Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” in David K. Ryden, ed., Is the Good Book Good Enough? Evangelical Perspectives on Public Policy Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
 In the 2013 PRRI survey the only other groups for which majorities are also concerned are Mormons and African-American Protestant. However, these findings vary by survey and questions posed. For instance, the Pew 2011 survey found Mormons somewhat split on immigration, with those having mission experiences (particularly in non-English speaking contexts) more favorable to the notion of immigrants strengthening the US than those who had not such experiences.
Image from Flickr via Wonderlane