Land: Support for immigration reform growing

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Support for immigration reform is growing among Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians.

That was the message from a Southern Baptist Convention leader and the pastors of two SBC mega-churches in recent news conferences.

"[A]s I've gone around the Southern Baptist Convention, I've found significant support and growing support for comprehensive immigration reform in Southern Baptist life," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in an April 2 news conference phone call.

He reiterated his observation in a news conference call Thursday (April 4), saying, "We're confident that the majority, significant majority, of evangelical Christians in America support immigration reform."

David Fleming, pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, said during the April 2 call, "[M]y experience has been here in Texas that conservative Christians and evangelicals are rising to support a biblical approach to this very complex issue."

Evangelical reform advocates are continuing their effort to mobilize fellow Christians to urge members of Congress to approve broad immigration legislation this year. Land and Fleming joined David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, and others in the April 2 call to unveil a new advertising initiative.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical Christian leaders, announced sponsorship of an ad campaign beginning the same date in four states: Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. The ads, which urge listeners to pray for and encourage their elected representatives to support immigration reform, are scheduled to run on 50 Christian radio stations.

The initiative comes as bipartisan groups in both the Senate and House of Representatives appear nearly ready to introduce legislation designed to reform what is widely acknowledged as a badly broken immigration system. The current system has resulted in the presence of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States illegally.

Recent public opinion polls showed white evangelicals trailing other religious groups in supporting a path to citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants.

A Pew Research Center survey found 62 percent of white evangelicals said immigrants in the country illegally should be allowed to stay -- with 40 percent saying they should be able to apply for citizenship and 20 percent for permanent residency. That total trailed the responses from Catholic and other Protestant groups in the poll results announced March 28. Overall, 71 percent of Americans favored immigrants in the country illegally being able to remain but only 43 percent for citizenship.

Another poll found 56 percent of white evangelicals said immigrants in the country illegally should be able to become citizens if they meet specific requirements. White evangelicals trailed seven other religious groups on that issue, according to the Public Religion Research Institute survey for the Brookings Institution. The survey released March 21 showed 63 percent of Americans overall supported possible citizenship.

EIT members, however, believe "the landscape is changing on this issue," Noel Castellanos said April 2. "[W]e who are close to our congregations and pews have seen a real difference in attitude ...," said Castellanos, chief executive officer of the Christian Community Development Association.

The last congressional push for immigration reform faltered in 2007, but some conditions have changed since then, the Southern Baptist leaders said. In churches, a greater understanding of biblical teaching and the presence of immigrants has made a difference, they said.

In the Bible, there is a command to "welcome and treat fairly all people but especially the stranger and the foreigner in your land," Uth said. "And this always comes with a reminder to God's people that we were once strangers as well."

According to Jesus' words in Matthew 25 regarding the final judgment, "[W]hen we fail to welcome strangers, in essence we fail to welcome Christ," Uth said.

"[T]he reason I got involved in this is not because I read the polls," Uth said. "The reason I got involved is because I read the Scripture, and I just saw what was happening."

When Christians learn what the Bible says, it opens their hearts, Uth said. When they meet immigrants, "all of a sudden this issue has a face; it has a story," said Uth, who reported there were 32 original languages represented among those attending First Baptist Church in Orlando at one event.

The recent increase in Hispanics participating in evangelical churches and missions has made a difference, Land said. "[I]t put a human face on this that we didn't have five to seven years ago."

Houston is 44 percent Hispanic, Fleming said. Champion Forest Baptist Church had more than 2,500 people in its Spanish service Easter Sunday, he said.

"We are all in this together," Fleming said, adding later, "We see the immigrant as a person created in the image of God. They're husbands and wives; they're parents; they're children. But oftentimes our broke immigration system causes great suffering in the homes and in the families and in the people's lives."

The immigration system is not only "ineffective and inefficient; it's unfair and oftentimes simply unjust," Fleming said. "We're treating these people like political footballs."

Castellanos said, "[W]e pray that the fruit of our joint efforts will result in many of our undocumented friends coming to know and experience the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in a way that brings about not only citizenship in this country but in Heaven for all eternity as well."

Action by Congress is needed soon, Land and Castellanos said.

"I think our concern collectively is that we do not kind of continue to kick the can down the road and not take action ...," Castellanos said.

Delay will make passage more difficult, Land said. Pro-reform evangelicals are not speaking out to support "any one plan or any one political figure but to lift up the moral issues at stake in this debate, and they are profound," he said.

Alberto Gonzales, attorney general under President George W. Bush, told reporters on Thursday's call, "I'm delighted at the progress that appears to be ongoing to date, but this has been the easy part. Laying out the basic principles has been easy. I think when we get into the details of legislation, that's when we're going to find some very difficult issues. But nonetheless, I'm very optimistic, and I for one am hopeful that for once we're going to get something done this year."

EIT has called for solutions to the immigration system that "reflect each person's God-given dignity, respect the rule of law, protect family unity, guarantee secure borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path towards citizenship."

The new EIT ad in Florida features Uth speaking, while the ad in Texas features Fleming. In March, EIT sponsored ads on Christian radio stations in South Carolina.

EIT is sponsoring an Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform April 17 in Washington.

Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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