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From politics to the pulpit, faith groups see 'the hand of God' in immigration reform

Maricela Aguilar delivered a cantaloupe to Rep. Steve King after his controversial comments on immigration.

When lawmakers return to their home districts this August, they’re likely to hear strident opinions about immigration reform from local business owners, farmers, political activists, talk radio devotees and regular citizens engaged in the democratic process.

But many Christian leaders are hoping that they also hear the voice of the Almighty as well.

“It is very difficult to argue theologically that Jesus would be opposed to immigration reform,” says Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Beyond the issue of the public policy, the heart of God is for those that are suffering and for the oppressed and the marginalized.”

Rodriguez’s group – encompassing more than 40,000 evangelical congregations nationwide – is just one of many faith-based organizations hoping to influence the immigration debate this fall by invoking scripture and the compassion of God, from the pulpit and at political events.  

Pro-reform Christian organizations trace their support for the overhaul from Biblical passages and parables; the most often-quoted is Matthew 25:35, which reads “ For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” Leviticus 19 is another common refrain: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Nev., center, joins immigration reform supporters as they block a street on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, during a rally protesting immigration policies and the House GOP's inability to pass a bill that contains a pathway to citizenship.

But there are also very practical reasons for these organizations to engage in the pro-reform effort. Immigrants are increasingly a part of the fabric of American faith communities, advocates say – even those in congressional districts that are still overwhelmingly white. And when undocumented individuals face poverty, health problems and deportations, they’re turning to churches for help.

“Most evangelicals who are concerned about immigration aren’t concerned about immigration as an abstract issue,” says Dr. Russell Moore, the new head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “They’re concerned about people in their pews who are facing a broken system. They’re concerned about families that are threatened with being split apart.”

The faith-based push is far from new, but it’s reaching peak volume as the effort to pass immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is bogged down in the GOP-led House going into the August recess.

Some, like the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, are specifically targeting Republican members of Congress who are on the fence by appealing to members of their congregation to attend town hall meetings and visit district offices. Others are more focused on building support for the reform effort through prayer and community events.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging local dioceses to organize pilgrimages, devote masses and deliver sermons on the subject; it has also suggested Sept. 8 as a day of action for Catholics to pray for – and speak up about – immigration.  

The “Bibles, Badges and Business” campaign, made up of diverse faith groups as well as law enforcement and business groups, is planning about 50 events nationwide, including roundtables, speeches and town hall visits. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition made of up many of the same evangelical organizations, aims to target about 80 congressional districts with in-person visits, phone calls and op-eds, according to Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a national Christian organization focused on social and racial justice.

“When a pastor with 5,000 members calls his member of Congress, he answers the phone,” Wallis said.

The alliances between different religious groups – not always on the same page on other issues like sexual morality, war and the economy – also allow the pro-reform coalition to offer a consistent message to people of faith from born-again Christians and Mormons, who have supported Republicans overwhelmingly in past presidential elections, to Catholics and mainline Protestants, who are more evenly split between the two parties.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, joins MSNBC's Alex Witt to talk about immigration reform and the Voting Rights Act.

“The faith groups can reach to both sides of the spectrum,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We have an ability to reach into offices where others may not be able to and make the argument that this is the right thing to do.”

Appleby acknowledges that the politics of immigration reform aren’t easy for some lawmakers, who may be hearing overwhelmingly from constituents who oppose the reform effort when they go home to heavily conservative districts.

Not all who hear the message are going to be convinced that creating a path to citizenship is the Christian thing to do. (Critics of the citizenship policy, after all, also cite the Bible, pointing to Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”)

“But,” Appleby adds, “it certainly doesn’t hurt for members to know that their church or their faith organization would support them on this, and thank them for it.”  

Moore, from the Southern Baptist Convention, says that – although his organization doesn’t specifically organize political activity – the most effective way to influence lawmakers on the fence about the reform effort is simply to tell the stories of how the broken immigration system affects people in their own churches.

“As our congregations become more ethnically diverse – and they are, rapidly – our people are seeing the human element here,” he said. “Those stories are finding their way out of local congregations and toward elected officials.”

A May 2013 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project estimated that, over the last two decades, the United States has admitted about 12.7 million legal immigrants who identify as Christians.  About 60 percent of new legal immigrants last year were Christian.

And among undocumented immigrants, the percentage of Christians is even more striking. More than eight in ten undocumented immigrants are Christian, the study found, translating to an estimated 9.2 million individuals living in the United States today.

“The future of the churches, all of them – Catholic, Southern Baptist, evangelical, mainline – the future of our churches are immigrants,” Wallis says. “They are our future.”

Rodriguez agrees, citing projections that show the majority of evangelicals in the United States may be Latino by the year 2030.

“The optics that guide the community in addressing immigration reform are not just morally driven – which is the most important – but are also about self-preservation,” Rodriguez says.  

“The very future of American evangelicalism lies in the hands of the immigration reform debate. So it’s a matter of survival.”

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