Calling for a “just, rational” effort on immigration reform that begins with secure borders then proceeds with a comprehensive plan to citizenship for illegal immigrants, leaders of the nation’s largest evangelical organizations released a letter
Tuesday they hope will jump-start the debate on immigration.
is notable in part for calling Arizona’s new law on immigration misguided while blaming the federal government for not defending the state’s dangerous border with Mexico, which is mired in a violent drug war.
“We must first secure our borders before we can implement a broader just assimilation immigration policy,’’ states the letter
, signed by a group that includes Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy wing, and Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University School of Law.
“Secure borders are not closed borders,” the letter adds. “We must return to a rational immigration policy that acknowledges that we are both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. It is our obligation to provide a just solution to those people who are currently undocumented under the present policy.
“That solution is neither amnesty nor mass deportation. A just, rational policy would put otherwise law-abiding undocumented persons on one of three paths: one path leads to pursuing earned legal citizenship or legal residency, one leads to acquiring legal guest-worker status, and one leads back across the border including a swift process for the deportation of undocumented felons.”
The letter will be printed Wednesday in Roll Call, the influential Washington political newspaper. Others signing the letter are Bishop George McKinney, Founder and Pastor of St. Stephen’s Cathedral COGIC, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state who also served as ambassador to the United Nations on human rights.
Staver acknowledged to CNN Tuesday that the letter may stir controversy in GOP ranks, especially in a midterm election year in which Republicans could see sizeable gains and even win the House or Senate.
"There's a misconception among people at the grass roots that the pathway to citizenship is amnesty, and it's not, but we have to overcome that," said Staver, who heads the law school at the university founded by Jerry Falwell. "There's a lot of work to be done."
Another key figure in the new push is Rick Tyler -- former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's longtime spokesman and head of Gingrich's new values-based organization.
Rodriguez, whose group represents about 16 million Latino evangelicals in the U.S. -- says he'll soon start presenting the document to Republican leaders like Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio in hopes that they sign on.
"If the conservative evangelical community looks to the Republican Party and says, 'We demand integration reform, we demand a just assimilation strategy,' that may be the tipping point in getting substantial Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform," Rodriguez told CNN.
Another key reason for the push is that Hispanics are a growing force in evangelical ranks. Evangelical Christianity is one of the most important social trends in Latin America and the Caribbean over the last two decades, and in countries like Haiti, Mexico and even Cuba, evangelical churches are assuming a greater role in human rights work.
"We have 40 denominations, and in general I think it's fair to say that for most of our members the immigrant congregations are the fastest-growing," said Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Evangelical Association. "Their voices are increasingly being heard within the church."
Land and other evangelical leaders are also working to convince Republicans that the party will lose Hispanic voters -- a fast-growing bloc -- if they take a strident line on immigration.
Land told CNN that Hispanics, like non-Hispanic white evangelicals, generally take a conservative approach to social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but that they often vote for Democrats because of the immigration issue.
"Hispanics are hard-wired to be like us on sanctity of life, marriage and issues of faith," said Land, describing political similarities between Hispanics and white Southern Baptists. "I'm concerned about being perceived as being unwelcoming to them."
Land made clear in a separate letter last month that what the group is pushing is not a general amnesty.
The legislation that will gain his endorsement will line up with four points made in a separate Southern Baptist resolution, Land wrote. It would:
- “Insure the federal government provides for U.S. security ‘by controlling and securing our borders’;
- “Enforce immigration laws, including oversight of the hiring practices of private employers;
- “Deal judiciously and ‘realistically’ with those in the country illegally; and,;
- “Allow the people of God to act ‘redemptively,’ reaching out to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of all immigrants as they work toward an earned pathway of ‘legal status and/or citizenship.’”
The phrase “comprehensive legislation,” Land said, “is not code for amnesty, no matter what my critics contend. Amnesty is wiping a transgressor’s record clean — it is a free ride.”
To require illegal immigrants to become proficient in English, pay fines and back taxes, undergo a criminal check and wait behind legal immigrants in an effort to seek citizenship after a lengthy probation is hardly amnesty, he says.
The last time Washington attempted immigration reform, under President George W. Bush in 2007, the project failed, largely because many conservatives and Republicans said the plan's inclusion of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. was tantamount to amnesty.
Most major evangelical groups sat out the 2007 fight over immigration reform, but many, including the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 30 million Americans, have since taken up the cause.
Trying to apply the political lessons of 2007, the evangelical leaders now pushing comprehensive immigration reform stress that the borders need to be secured as part of any reform package.
"I look at the Arizona law as a cry for help from a state that's being inundated as a result of the federal government refusing to enforce its laws," Land told CNN.
But, he added, "I think the Arizona law is the wrong way to attack the problem."
The National Evangelical Association's 2009 resolution on immigration includes several paragraphs citing scriptural authority:
"Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the families of his sons turned to Egypt in search of food," it says. "Joseph, Naomi, Ruth, Daniel and his friends, Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all lived in foreign lands. In the New Testament, Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to escape Herod's anger and became refugees in Egypt."
A 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that frequent churchgoers are more likely to support path-to-citizenship reforms than occasional attendees are.
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