WASHINGTON (BP) -- An opportunity remains this year to achieve congressional passage of immigration reform, in the view of a Southern Baptist public policy specialist.
"The window is there," Barrett Duke told hundreds of immigration reform advocates in Washington, D.C.
"Now is the time to get this done, not later," said Duke, vice president for public policy with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "We're almost there. Congress just needs to finish the job it already started."
Evangelical Christian leaders joined conservative business executives and law enforcement officials for panel discussions Oct. 29 before going to Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress to agree to immigration reform before the end of the year. Their effort came after congressional disagreement regarding funding the federal government led to a shutdown that delayed other legislative considerations, including immigration.
Leaders in the reform campaign expressed their belief that immigration reform in 2013 still remains attainable with two months left in the year, including only four weeks of sessions scheduled in the House of Representatives.
The Senate has approved a broad bill, which Duke has said needs some repair work. So far, the House has taken a piecemeal approach, with two House committees –- Judiciary and Homeland Security –- approving a total of five bills. Those bills deal with strengthening border and national security, providing visas for guest workers, requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check workers' eligibility and setting levels for the number of immigrants.
"Soon, all of the main components of immigration reform will have been addressed by the Senate and the House," Duke said in a panel discussion hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. "So it's obvious there is a window. It's obvious that most people are moving in the right direction on the principles as well."
Most of the work Congress has done, he said, is "not that far from the principles" espoused by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), a coalition of evangelical leaders promoting a solution that will secure the borders, respect the law and authorize a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
"It's going to take a real political compromise here, but that compromise itself is even within this narrow window of principles we all pretty much agree on," Duke said. "We're not talking about amnesty. We're not talking about mass deportation. We're in this narrow range that most people can agree on."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told the audience, "We are so close.... [T]his is going to be, at the end of the day, something conservatives get done."
Bruce Josten, the Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president for government affairs, said reform advocates "have our work cut out for us."
Panelists said reform is important for public safety, economic and moral reasons.
Frank Keating, president of the American Bankers Association and former Republican governor of Oklahoma, called immigration in the United States "a crazy-quilt system."
Al Cardenas, chair of the American Conservative Union, acknowledged solving the status of the 11 million people in the country illegally is the "stickler." He said the current system is "de facto amnesty" that "is unsustainable. It's not fair to anyone in this country."
Duke said reform advocates are asking for a recognition "that we are currently, essentially in an impossible situation given what is required by law, and we're simply saying, 'Let's create a different set of penalties for this very complex situation so that we can move on and respect the rule of law but also respect the dignity of these 11 million people who are caught themselves in an impossible circumstance.'"
When asked what is the most effective thing that can be done to help gain immigration reform, Duke called for people of faith in the audience to pray for lawmakers "who need to make these decisions for the right reason and that God would actually engage with them in their contemplations about how they need to help our country address immigration reform."
The ERLC was among nearly two dozen conveners of the event, which was followed by more than 600 evangelicals and conservatives going to congressional offices to express their desire for reform.
The EIT promotes a solution that:
-- "Respects the God-given dignity of every person;
-- "Protects the unity of the immediate family;
-- "Respects the rule of law;
-- "Guarantees secure national borders;
-- "Ensures fairness to taxpayers;
-- "Establishes a path toward legal status and citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents."
In 2011, messengers to the 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 the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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