President Barack Obama's executive action
on immigrants is threatening to divide a large coalition of religious groups that had been pushing for a solution to the country's immigration reform issues, some church leaders fear.
"It certainly didn't help," Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told USA Today
. "What we have united around is the idea of fixing a broken system with an earned path toward legal status or citizenship, not a blanket amnesty of any kind. This situation doesn't fix that problem."
Moderate and conservative religious groups have been working together toward immigration legislation, much as the issue has made odd bedfellows of legislators and immigration advocacy groups; high-tech leaders and farmers; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor unions.
And where the religious groups are concerned, "immigration reform created an incredible, unified coalition of people that don't normally work together," said the Rev. Tony Suarez, a pastor in Norfolk, Va. and vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Such efforts have led to a broad bipartisan immigration bill that passed through the senate last year, and even though the bill died in the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had members gauge GOP support for a House bill. Further, some advocates are still hoping for the Republican-controlled Congress, beginning in January, will move legislation before the 2016 presidential elections.
But Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart told USA Today that Obama's decision could damage any religious coalition working toward a legislative solution.
"In an area where we started seeing some more unity, in an area that I think had the potential to bring together the American people, the president now, I think, has really driven a very, very large wedge into it," Diaz-Balart said.
Religious leaders such as Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said it is "troubling" how the nation's believers are now turning away from immigration reform as an issue.
"The neo-nativists, or the anti-immigrant faction of the Republican Party, has allowed for this to happen," said Wenski. "But it's not the majority of the party. All these people upset with Obama making this decision just have to take a deep breath."
Wenski and others in the religious community, though, are holding out for hope for a legislative solution to immigration reform.
The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, was with Obama on Air Force One last week when he traveled to Las Vegas to announce the immigration plan, and told the president his group supported the executive action.
However, he noted that the coalition will stick together for a long-term legislative solution.
"Sometimes people are so caught up in the partisanship of the Beltway that they think the evangelical community reflects that tenor of conversation," Salguero said. "We don't. We're different. We talk the language we have in common, which is the Gospel. So we can have disagreements, but our relationship is strong."
And Suarez said that religious leaders were talking before Obama's announcement, and none talked about breaking up the coalition, and he is sure it will continue pressing Congress on a bill after January.
"Anytime you're going to build a coalition, you have to know when to walk together and when to walk separate," he said. "You have to know when to give people the opportunity to express themselves and then come back together for the reason that brought us all together."
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