Evangelicals respond to immigration reform


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Homeland Security estimates that nearly 11 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in January 2009. That number, however, was down nearly three quarters of a million from the previous January.

Numbers vary, but the reality is that the U.S. is home to millions of new immigrants—both authorized and unauthorized—and the Church as a whole and individual Christians have had to develop a response to this new reality. 

Last fall, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) issued a resolution on immigration that has helped make the issue a national discussion point for millions of Evangelicals around the country. In its resolution, the NAE issued a call to action—based on biblical foundations—that urged, among others things:

• "That immigrants be treated with respect and mercy by churches. Exemplary treatment of immigrants by Christians can serve as the moral basis to call for government attitudes and legislation to reflect the same virtues."

• "That the government recognize the central importance of the family in society by reconsidering the number and categories of visas for family reunifications, by dedicating more resources to reducing the backlog of cases in process, and by reevaluating the impact of deportation on families."

• "That immigration enforcement be conducted in ways that recognize the importance of due process of law, the sanctity of the human person, and the incomparable value of family."

Denominational leaders
The NAE's call for immigration reform has been heard by some denominational and religious leaders. Carl Nelson, president and CEO of the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals (GMAE), sees a commitment from these leaders for change. "They see among their peers, other denominations leaders, more people becoming much more informed about the issues and committed to working for some healthy solutions."

While these denominational and religious leaders are becoming more informed about and committed to issues surrounding immigration, their challenge is to communicate that vision and support to those in their congregations. Even though that can be demanding, Nelson believes that once people in the pews hear personal stories about the impact of immigration and "begin to see the effect of this on the ground," that they will "begin to open their minds to talking about some changes and solutions."

Even though Dr. Garry Morgan, professor of intercultural studies at Northwestern College, in St. Paul, believes that many Evangelical leaders "have a broader perspective of all the issues involved," this perspective "hasn't always been communicated to 'the pews' and when it has, it has often met with resistance."

The Rev. Dr. John A. Mayer, executive director of City Vision, in Minneapolis, sees the NAE acting in concert with its role as a leader and catalyst. "[The NAE] should be getting churches to be engaged and thinking on these issues," he said. "They have created a dialogue and thinking around this issue and now the conversations are beginning to happen about what are some of the Christian perspectives surrounding this issue."

Changing attitudes
As a political issue, immigration continues to remain at the forefront of the national debate. Quietly, as the issue has been debated, some have argued that Evangelical attitudes regarding immigration and immigration reform have changed.

The Public Religion Research Institute recently released the results of a poll that found support for comprehensive immigration reform across religious groups.

Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, said via a press statement: "By a 2-to-1 margin, American voters strongly support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and they want a solution that reflects strongly held values. More than 8-in-10 Americans—including overwhelming majorities of white mainline Protestants, Catholics and white Evangelicals—believe strongly that immigration reform should be guided by the values of protecting the dignity of every person and keeping families together as well as by such values as promoting national security and ensuring fairness to taxpayers."

Dr. David E. Fenrick, director of the Center for Global Reconciliation and Cultural Education at Northwestern College believes attitudes have changed over the past decades. "I think attitudes are changing as people begin to wrestle with this issue from a theological perspective and develop relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures," he said.

But Fenrick also notes that organizations like "World Relief, Lutheran Social Services, Mennonite Central Committee, Sojourners, and Evangelicals for Social Action have been advocating for changes in our immigration policies for years." 

Mayer agrees that Evangelicals have been late to the game when it comes to immigration reform. "Yes, in general, the Church has always lagged behind the culture 20-40 years," he said. "This is both good and bad," he continued. "It is good in that the Church needs to be separate from the world on many issues and look for Christian solutions and not worldly compromises. But it is bad where the Church should be engaged and leading the way and have the voice of truth and love and God's perspective on key issues in the culture."

Religious vs. political issue
Over the years, the NAE has been criticized by some Evangelicals for being too political. Most notably, Richard Cizik resigned from the organization in 2008 over his advocacy for creation care, which was opposed by many conservative Evangelical leaders. However, some argue that issues like immigration are theological and missiological issues first—and not mainly political ones.

"These issues are first and foremost theological issues and in many ways missiological issues," Fenrick said. "I commend the NAE for wrestling with these issues theologically. As the biblical story and Christian history reveal, theological issues have vital implications in the political realm."

Mayer sees biblical connections, as well. "I do see the Bible discussing some aspects of this issue, and there are some biblical principles for Christians to apply in this area," he said.

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