June 15th, 2012
04:23 PM ET
By Jessica Yellin and Dan Merica
Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama is receiving political cover for his decision to stop deporting some young illegal immigrants from two big groups with whom his relations have been rocky: evangelical Christians and Catholics.
“We do give credit where credit is due,” said Kevin Appleby, director of Migration and Public Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Friday, when Obama made his announcement.
“We welcome the announcement, it will provide important relief to a vulnerable group that we believe should remain in the country,” Appleby said. “They didn't come here on their own volition; they came here with their parents. They are virtually Americans.”
In recent months, the Catholic bishops have hammered the White House over its new rule requiring insurance companies to offer free contraception to all employees, with a major Catholic religious liberty campaign around the issue scheduled to launch later this month. The Catholic Church has filed dozens of lawsuits across the country against the so-called contraception mandate.
It would seem that the White House learned from that fallout, consulting with religious leaders in advance of Friday’s immigration announcement.
Earlier this week, senior White House officials met with a diverse group of evangelical organizations on the issue of immigration reform. That group, which included conservative Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis and the National Association of Evangelicals’ Leith Anderson, endorsed an “Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform” that includes calling for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
The statement also called for respect for “the God given dignity of every person” and respect for “the rule of law.”
The president’s Friday announcement was met with praise by some top leaders in the American evangelical community, a demographic the president has struggled with, largely over his recently announced support for gay marriage and his support of abortion rights.
“This new policy is good news for America and is good news for undocumented young adults who came to America through the choice of others,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, on Friday. “It is the right thing to do.”
Jim Wallis, who leads a social justice group called Sojourners, called the Friday announcement from Obama “very good news for 1 million young people who have a dream of staying in the country where they have lived most of their lives.”
“As evangelicals we love the ‘good news’ of the gospel, and today we affirm this good news that gives hope and a future for young immigrants who are an important part of both the church and this country,” Wallis said.
Under the new policy, people younger than 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16, pose no criminal or security threat, and were successful students or served in the military can get a two-year deferral from deportation, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The announcement drew sharp criticism from many conservative political groups and leaders, who say the new policy is tantamount to amnesty or is a big step toward amnesty for hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people.
Not all evangelical groups were supportive of the president’s decision, either.
“We are not supporting this announcement,” said Tom Minnery, a senior vice president at Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization headquartered in Colorado. “The first two years he had Democratic control of Congress and promised to fix immigration in his first year and he hasn’t done so. It is hard to take the president seriously after that.”
Minnery’s comments come after Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, supported the broad evangelical statement of principles.
“We believe that the biblical notion of the family is so significant that anything we can do aims to keep families together,” we will support, said Minnery.
That notion means that many evangelicals consider keeping families together an issue of faith, says Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
“Evangelicals care about keeping families together and deportation splits families up,” Jones said. “Evangelicals certainly have a long history in thinking about the importance of family and keeping parents in the home. Some of the realities of the current policy evoke a passionate response among evangelicals.”
In a survey last year by PRRI, most evangelicals were supportive of comprehensive immigration reform. When asked how to deal with illegal immigration, 54% of evangelicals supported a plan that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States. Forty three percent supported deportation.
The August poll also points to a generational divide among evangelicals. When asked about policies that include a path to citizenship, 55% of evangelicals 18-39 years old supported the idea. By comparison, only 34% of evangelicals 65 and older supported the same policy.
Younger evangelicals “have grown up in a more diverse world then their parents and grandparents and that has given them a different perspective on this issue,” Jones said.
One senior administration official sees talks over immigration as the start of a conversation with evangelicals. “While today's Dream Act actions were not discussed in that meeting, the broad support of conservative evangelicals for immigration reform was welcomed by the administration.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.