‘To welcome the stranger’ : Evangelicals and the Republican quandary over Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Quick Takes

. . . Pastors and church-leaders for the past two years have been very vocal in their efforts to ‘welcome the stranger’ through immigration reform and in so doing are reframing evangelical Christian concerns beyond the rote of life-issues. . . . Though evangelical leaders have pushed for reform, this hasn’t yet filtered down to evangelical congregations who are amongst the most skeptical of CIR. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) noted in 2013 that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely of all religious groups to support a path to citizenship for illegal migrants.

For the past year immigration reform has been a hot topic for the GOP. Since the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (S.744, or ‘CIR’) by a clear majority of 68-32 in June of last year, it has stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.[1] The Bill passed the Senate stage with strong bi-partisan support because of leadership from the so-called ‘Gang of Eight’ that includes prominent Republicans, John McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham. They pushed for the bill to provide a pathway to residence and eventual citizenship for America’s 11.4 million ‘unauthorized migrants’.[2] CIR also looks to address other immigration concerns by expanding the nascent ‘E-Verify’ employment verification system, refocus visa and residence application backlogs with a fast-tracking of Green cards for foreign college graduates schooled in the US, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields; as well as expand border-controls. Notable in this push to ‘establish a coherent and just system for integrating those who seek to join American society’ have been the efforts of evangelical Christians.[3] Pastors and church-leaders for the past two years have been very vocal in their efforts to ‘welcome the stranger’ through immigration reform and in so doing are reframing evangelical Christian concerns beyond the rote of life-issues.


Evangelical Immigration Table

The parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 is often used to support action on immigration. ‘I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me’.[4]  – The ‘Evangelical Immigration Table’ has been at the forefront of these efforts; an umbrella organization of two dozen evangelical denominations, Christian colleges and seminaries, led by leaders such as Jim Daly from ‘Focus on the Family’, Leith Anderson of the ‘National Association of Evangelicals’ and Stephan Bauman of ‘World Relief’ amongst others. They believe that current ‘immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America… [that has] led to polarization and name calling …[with] opponents misrepresenting each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportation of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost. …We urge our nation’s leaders to work together with the American people to pass immigration reform …that will make our nation proud.’[5] Certainly the views of evangelical leaders have shifted considerably in recent years, with many less conservative than before. Adherence to ‘Republicanity’, the fusion of Christian faith and Republican ideology that distinguished evangelical political engagement over the past decade, especially under the Bush-era, has now disappeared. As pastors and church-leaders have seen their congregations swell with new migrants both legal and undocumented, views have changed. Instead of blindly following pejorative media taglines, or polarized conservative politics, many pastors have made the immigration issue personal, by listening as migrants relate their journeys – their difficulties in adjusting to their new lives in America, as well as the labyrinthine, costly and lengthy immigration process. Such personal attention to the plight of migrants has stoked compassion, and motivated evangelical pressure for reform. Rev. Joel Hunter, a pastor in Northwood, Florida is typical: ‘a large portion of [Florida’s] population is particularly hurt by a broken immigration system, and the millions of evangelicals who live here increasingly know, and want to help the families that live in the shadows of fear and separation.’[6] The push is certainly pertinent, evangelical pressure for CIR is set against a backdrop of record-high deportations, some 409,000 migrants were deported in 2012.[7] Between 2008 and 2014 more than 2.1 million unauthorized migrants will have been removed from the US; a figure equal to over a hundred years of deportations between 1892 and 1997 according to recent research by the University of California, Merced.[8]


A case for leaders not followers?

Though evangelical leaders have pushed for reform, this hasn’t yet filtered down to evangelical congregations who are amongst the most skeptical of CIR. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) noted in 2013 that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely of all religious groups to support a path to citizenship for illegal migrants.[9] Indeed in PRRI’s latest poll conducted in June 2014, evangelical ‘support for a pathway to citizenship dropped by 8 percent since 2013 – to 48 percent from 56 percent’. So far from moderating, views on immigration appear to be hardening.[10] It is no surprise then that PRRI’s 2014 poll found ‘31 percent of evangelicals still favour deportation’ of undocumented migrants, more than twice that of Catholics at 13 percent.[11] Calls for Christian compassion by evangelical leaders are viewed by a significant number of white evangelicals to be immigration ‘amnesty’ a slippery slope to liberation theology that clouds the rule of law they believe in. Resistance to reform likely derives not only from their binary theology and morality, which divides the world into ‘law-keepers’ and ‘law-breakers’,  but also from the robustness of ‘Republicanity’ amongst baby-boomers, whose historic partisanship remains significant.


The GOP’s Immigration Quandary

This hardening on immigration is also evidenced at the Capitol. Eric Cantor was until recently the House Majority Leader and was perhaps the most vocal opponent of reform and the CIR bill; he was frequently at loggerheads with President Barack Obama as to how to proceed on immigration.[12] Despite his stance, he was defeated in this June’s primary by the Tea Party’s David Brat, a college professor, for ‘being soft on immigration’.[13] Conservative voters signaled loud and clear to House Republicans that there should be ‘no amnesty’ on immigration, and that the proposed overhaul is only going to deepen acrimony within the party. House Republicans remain stalled at stalemate, prevaricating over the needs and interests of their known and potential constituencies. Many House Republicans have been hesitant to reform ‘as support is not clear in their districts’.[14] Certainly as Cantor’s dismissal illustrates, appearing moderate is a dangerous wager.  The quandary for Republicans is whether to oppose CIR to maintain support amongst the conservative Christian right base, who are a known quantity, placating conservatives, by presenting CIR as a dangerous ‘big government’ panacea in the mold of Obamacare, that potentially throws up more unknowns than before; or whether to advocate CIR, with a view to reaching out to migrant communities on compassionate conservative grounds, to try and diversify and get a new cohort of Republican supporters by attempting to persuade the predominantly Hispanic, Catholic community to buy into conservative family and civic-oriented values. So far support of one constituency has been at the cost of the other, and until recently Republican politicking preferred the Christian right ‘rule of law’ to migrant ‘compassion’, especially as the migrant vote was seen as a lost cause to the Democrats. Following the Republican 2012 Presidential defeat, the convening power of the Christian right came under greater scrutiny, and some Republicans such as Sen. John McCain pushed CIR as crucial first step towards ‘getting the party on a playing field [to] compete for the Hispanic voter’, to appeal to a new constituency.[15] The Cantor upset, however, eroded any consensus that was forming behind CIR for the midterms and 2016 election. Many moderate Republicans now fear further stalemate as obdurate polarization sets in; should they proceed with outreach to the new, or fear further scorn from the old ‘base’?


Is Compromise Inevitable?

Despite the somewhat unenviable position the GOP finds itself in following the Cantor upset, as one constituency fights to remain relevant against its rival, the fight may already be over, for one has clearly won the battle of political expediency. PRRI’s 2014 poll noted that ‘nearly 4-in-10 (37 percent) of voters believe the Republican Party’s current position on immigration reform will hurt the GOP in the midterms, compared to only 11 percent who say it will help the party’.[16] This clearly suggests that deferring on immigration reform is electorally bad for the GOP, and moderating their current position is better. The switch in constituency is inevitable, outreach and reform will happen regardless of protest votes from the Christian right evangelicals, as it will be forced upon the GOP to close the ‘migrant gap’ with the Democrats. With Congressional approval at a national low, a lackluster 13 percent, the worst response to the Cantor-upset would be more stubborn intractability; if 2013’s federal shutdown in October had any lessons for the GOP it was to underline how weary the American public is of the party backbiting, how the electorate is seeking leadership and compromise. Compromise on immigration reform will happen, as it is the only answer to the mathematics of defeat the Republicans currently face.


The Immigration Reform Paradox

Interestingly, it is through the reformist calls of evangelical leaders such as those on the ‘Evangelical Immigration Roundtable’ that GOP efforts instead of being halved as they currently stand, maybe redoubled. As GOP pollster Whit Ayres argues, voters in the Republican ‘base’ agree that the current immigration situation is unsatisfactory, and though focus groups show evangelical Republicans on the Christian right to be initially hostile to reform, with greater information and interaction with migrants, they often change their minds and support legalization of undocumented migrants under certain conditions.[17] As the immigration reform message percolates amongst evangelical congregations with greater force, evangelical leverage will increase, reasserting the Christian right’s privileged rights with the GOP. Moreover, rather than seeing CIR as insoluble, a test-case of constituencies, as the Republicans do presently, through evangelical leadership the immigration issue may grow the Christian ‘base’ – both evangelical and migrant – that the GOP calls upon in 2016. In other words, paradoxically, evangelical leadership efforts may draw the opposing constituencies and interests together.


In conclusion, there is more to the evangelicals and the GOP than the abortion and sexual ethics issues that the media never tires of highlighting. This noise has occluded the political pressure for compassionate immigration reform and the efforts of evangelical leaders to pass legislation through Congress with their Republican partners. Though evangelical leaders have shown empathy with the plight of migrants in America, this has yet to be emulated by their congregations and the ballot box. Nonetheless, evangelical leverage will inevitably multiply as this message of Christian charity is drawn down. Kneejerk responses to the right such as Cantor’s primary may be just a greying concern, a protest against the shifting sands of privileges from one bloc to another; as the more moderate and apolitical Millennial cohort takes over in future years, these dextral protests will likely wane. CIR will happen in one form of another; compromise will be forced on the GOP by weary American voters tired of the House’s obstinate polarity; by the need for the GOP to reach beyond the familiar to new and diverse migrant constituencies; and by internal evangelical pressures that are reforming the ideological makeup of the Christian right. Immigration reform has prompted considerable evangelical reform – it will prompt Republican concession and reform also.


[1] 113th Congress, 1st Session, ‘S.744, An Act to provide for comprehensive immigration reform and for other purposes’ US Gov’t Printing Office, 27th Jun. 2013, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014, <http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113s744es/pdf/BILLS-113s744es.pdf>

[2] Bryan Baker & Nancy Rytina, ‘Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012’ Department of Homeland Security – Office of Immigration Statistics, March 2012, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014, <http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_ill_pe_2012_2.pdf>

[3] op.cit. 113th Congress, 1st Session, ‘S.744, An Act…’ (2013)

[4] NIV, ‘Matthew 25:43, Sheep and the Goats’ The Bible – NIV, 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014, <http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25&version=NIV>

[5] Evangelical Immigration Roundtable, ‘Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform’ Evangelical Immigration Roundtable, 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014, < http://evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/#about>

[6] Evangelical Immigration Table, ‘The Stranger: Documentary Explores Biblical Response to Immigration’ Evangelical Immigration Table, 2014, date accessed,  <http://evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/documentary-explores-biblical-response-to-immigration/>

[7] USA Today, ‘Obama Sets Deportation Record, 409849’ USA Today, 21st Dec. 2012, date accessed, 6th Jun. 2014,  <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/21/record-2012-deportations/1785725/?

[8] Tanya Golash-Boza, ‘It’s Time to Stop Mass Deportation’ Al Jazeera, 11th Mar. 2013, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014,  <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/03/2013368333991931.html>

[9] Julia Preston, ‘For Evangelicals, A Shift in Views on Immigration’ New York Times, 13th Apr. 2013, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014,  <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/us/evangelical-christians-increasingly-favor-pathway-to-legal-status-for-immigrants.html?hp&_r=0>

[10] Executive Summary, ‘Survey, What Americans Want From Immigration Reform in 2014’ PRRI, 10th Jun. 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014,  <http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/06/immigration-reform-06-2014/>

[11] PRRI, ‘Immigration Reform Policy – Graphic’ PRRI, 10th Jun. 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014,


[12] Seung Min Kim, ‘President Obama, Eric Cantor talk Immigration – Sort of’ Politico, 16th Apr. 2014, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014, < http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/immigration-barack-obama-eric-cantor-105764.html>

[13] Jonathan Martin, ‘Eric Cantor Defeated by David Brat, Tea Party Challenger, in G.O.P. Primary Upset’ New York Times, 10th Jun. 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/us/politics/eric-cantor-loses-gop-primary.html?_r=0>

[14] op.cit. Julia Preston, ‘Coalition of Evangelical Churches…’ (2013)

[15] Alan Gomez, ‘Can the GOP boost Hispanic Vote Numbers?’ USA Today, 21st Mar. 2014, date accessed 6th Jun. 2014, <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/21/republican-hispanic-outreach-immigration/5377359/>

[16] op.cit. Executive Summary, ‘Survey, What Americans Want From Immigration Reform…’ (2014)

[17] Greg Sargent, ‘The Moral Case for Immigration Reform’ Washington Post, 19th Feb. 2014, date accessed 11th Jun. 2014, < http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/02/19/the-moral-case-for-immigration-reform/>

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