New York Times writer asks, “What’s up with evangelicals and immigration?”

I was interviewed last week by a reporter from the New York Times regarding the dramatic shift among evangelicals toward support for immigration reform.   The last time immigration reform was considered, under George W. Bush, Christians stayed on the sidelines and the process failed.  This time the mood is different.  Though lagging behind the general population, polls now show that over 60% of evangelicals support reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.  And that number is growing.

Some speculate that the change of heart is motivated purely by politics, particularly Romney’s loss in November.  While I wouldn’t suggest that electoral politics are not part of the equation, it should be noted that the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform was issued in 2010,  the G92 student-led movement began in March of 2011, and the Evangelical Immigration Table took shape later that year, nearly a full year before the Romney loss.  This indicates that evangelicals were changing course well before it was demanded by political realities.

I explained that two key factors behind the shift were the realization that this issue is addressed in scripture (see the I Was a Stranger campaign), and the fact that there is a different mood among younger evangelicals on issues of justice.

I grew up in a generation that quickly dismissed advocacy for cultural or political change as manifestations of a social gospel.  This generation thinks differently.  They see advocacy for justice, not as antithetical to evangelism, but as a precursor to evangelism.  It helps to create a positive impression of Christianity, which in turn opens opportunities to verbally share the gospel.  Kinnamon and Lyons’ book UnChristian makes a strong case for why this is so important.

The NYTs writer asked why some evangelicals continue to oppose immigration reform.  She asked if there were underlying theological reasons why some Christians resist the tide and remain opposed to immigration reform.  I suggested that most resistance to immigration reform is based on cultural or political factors, rather than theological considerations.  I would like to suggest several “non-theological” reasons why some evangelicals oppose immigration reform.

  • Failure to remember that many of the hero’s of our faith, including Abraham, Rebecca, Joseph, Ruth, David, Paul, and even Jesus were immigrants.
  • Misinformation such as a widely circulated email that reported cited a LA Times report claiming that 95% of warrants for murder in LA go to “illegal immigrants,” and that 75% of the births in Los Angeles County were to “illegals” on Medicaid who were bilking taxpayers.  Chuck Colson challenged Christians to think critically about such outrageous claims and to respond compassionately to immigration.  In reality, the LA Times never made these claims.  Furthermore, undocumented immigrants contribute $6-7 billion to Social Security and income taxes each year.  The Social Security Administration estimates that 75% of all undocumented immigrants are paying taxes even though they are ineligible for the vast majority of benefits.
  • Myths such as the belief that undocumented immigrants are dangerous.  Lou Dobbs reported that undocumented immigrants compose “a third” of our prison population.  In reality, only 6% of federal and state prisoners are noncitizens.  This includes both documented and undocumented immigrants.  The crime rate for immigrants is actually lower than that of native-born U.S. citizens.  Another myth is that immigrants are lazy people who come here for free social services….in reality, they have a 96% employment rate and U.S. law prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving any cash-based government assistance such as welfare, public housing, or Medicaid.

The only theological argument against undocumented immigration is the concept of rule of law and submission to authority, yet even groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table (a group to which I belong) suggest that immigration reform must respect rule of law and be fair to taxpayers.  Evangelicals have a responsibility, not only to support the law, but also to use the freedoms that make America unique to challenge laws that are unjust or unhelpful.  Sometimes the laws of man don’t line up with the natural laws written on our hearts.  When that is true we should respectfully challenge the law and seek to use freedoms and voice that we have as Americans to change it.  Martin Luther King noted that everything that Hitler did in Germany was “legal.”  That certainly didn’t make it right.   Christ himself violated some of the religious laws of his day when they failed to line up with higher laws related to how we care for others.

My hope is that evangelicals will base their beliefs about immigration on scripture and live up to the lines etched at the base of the Statute of Liberty, which reads,

“Give me your tired and poor,  your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…send these , the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Better yet, let’s live up to scripture’s many admonition to care for immigrants.

If you agree, let your pastor (or your congregation) know that immigration presents us with a great opportunity for ministry and advocacy.  Also take the time to call your Congressman/woman and Senators to let them know that you are praying for them, and that you hope they will pass comprehensive reform that “welcomes the stranger” (Matthew 25).

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