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Evangelical Christians prepare for ‘largest ever grassroots push on immigration’
January 12th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Evangelical Christians prepare for ‘largest ever grassroots push on immigration’

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – When the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez talks about immigration, it is as someone who has witnessed the way a religious community is affected when a family is torn apart by deportation.

“It is personal for me,” Rodriguez said, describing deported friends and congregants as "lovely people. These are wonderful, God-fearing, family-loving people.”

Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has a naturally boisterous voice that booms with authority. When he speaks about immigration, passion oozes out of every syllable. But his voice softens as he speaks of those close to him who have been deported: an associate pastor's wife, a friend from Sacramento, California, a well-known congregant - the list seems committed to memory.

Even as he relives the heartache, the pastor seems hopeful, if not optimistic.

Rodriguez, along with a number of other high-profile evangelical leaders, many of whom who have worked on immigration reform for decades, are betting that 2013 represents the best opportunity they've ever had to get meaningful reforms passed. Proof of their confidence: A coalition of evangelical groups is launching what many are calling the “largest ever grass-roots push on immigration.”

“We have a moral imperative to act,” Rodriguez exclaims. “This is the year. This is the evangelical hour to lead in a justice issue.”

In the mind of many evangelical leaders, the reverend is right.

Betting on 2013

The coalition is called the Evangelical Immigration Table and it is brought together a diverse mix of evangelical groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners and Focus on the Family.

Though the groups began holding broader discussion two years ago, Monday will serve as the campaign's first concerted push on immigration, with the goal of getting meaningful immigration reform through Congress in 2013.

“I think we have a window of opportunity in these first months of 2013,” Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told CNN. “I think there is a real, new conversation on immigration reform.”

That window, Land acknowledges, is small and could close at any point. Congress has a number of issues to deal with in the coming year; Republican members of Congress hope to focus on government spending and the debt, while the White House is likely to push for gun control early in the president’s second term.

Land, however, says that isn’t an excuse.

“I am hopeful that Congress can walk and chew gum and the same time,” Land said. “I am hopeful they can deal with more than one issue at the same time.”

The group has already released an open letter to Congress and the White House. In it, they the group presses Congress to respect “the God-given dignity of every person” and establish a “path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.”

“As evangelical leaders, we live every day with the reality that our immigration system doesn’t reflect our commitment to the values of human dignity, family unity and respect for the rule of law that define us as Americans,” the letter states. “Initiatives by both parties to advance commonsense fixes to our immigration policies have stalled in years past.”

Since the group's launch last June, organizers have been fundraising and placing people in three states,  Colorado, Florida and Texas, to lay the groundwork with local evangelical leaders and politicians. By making these early investments, coalition leaders hope there will be a highly reactive group of evangelicals ready to push for immigration reform.

In addition to local networking, these evangelical leaders have begun lobbying leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate and plan to do more “grass-roots lobbying,” including bringing people to Capitol Hill in the future.

According to Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and a leader in the coalition, the group has met with “top-level White House officials” as well as Democratic and Republican leaders "from Chuck Schumer to Lindsey Graham."

“Immigration reform, fixing this broken system, has a chance of being the first thing, maybe the one thing, that I think could really be accomplished in a bipartisan way,” Wallis said. “Courageous, bold, bipartisan decisions that do the right thing are not real common (in Washington), but I think this is really possible now.”

Making the focus biblical

For Richard Land and other coalition leaders, this is not just a moral issue, it is also biblical.

“For those of us who are people of faith, these are issues that our faith informs,” Land said. “For us, this is an issue that is rending the social fabric of the nation and causing a great deal of human suffering. As people of faith, we need to address it.”

The campaign will release a video on Monday that features more than a dozen evangelical leaders reading the text of Matthew 25:31-46.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him…” reads Max Lucado, a well-known evangelical pastor and author.

“He will sit on his glorious throne, all the nations gathered before him…” continues John Perkins, an evangelical author and speaker.

The video continues this way for more than two minutes, evangelical leader after evangelical leader reading a biblical text that stresses the importance of helping “a stranger.”

“'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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,'” Jesus says, describing the Final Judgment. “'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”

In addition to the video's release, the coalition organizers have asked local leaders to encourage their congregations to take the “I Was a Stranger Challenge.” Those who take the challenge will receive daily verses of scripture that might apply to the immigration issue – with the hope that they will use them in prayer – and a “Toolkit” to help spread the word on the need for immigration reform.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” reads the first text, citing Genesis 1:27.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands,” reads the last text, citing Revelation 7:9.

Pastors are also being urged to use their sermons to speak about the need to help "strangers" and relate immigration reform to Christian values.

In total, the organizers believe the campaign will reach more than 100,000 churches.

“Evangelicals have been converted by the Bible and by Jesus on the issue of welcoming strangers,” Wallis said. “It is very clear if you go around the country, this is a conversion here. It is a biblical conversion. What Jesus says is the way you treat the stranger is the way you treat me.”

‘The right thing for the wrong reasons’

Coalition leaders also see the 2012 election results, particularly the fact that Republican nominee Mitt Romney struggled mightily among Hispanic voters, as a powerful tool they can use against reluctant politicians. Land, who has long counseled Republican presidents on religious issues, says he plans to use the 2012 election to his favor when talking to legislators.

“We plan to point out that if the GOP ... wants to be a viable national party in the future, then it is going to have to get more Hispanic votes then it did in the last election,” Land said. When asked if he is comfortable with getting immigration reform passed by using political and election bargaining, Land laughed.

“Maybe [the Republican Party] should do the right thing for the wrong reasons,” he said.

But Republicans are not the only group faced with changing demographics. Evangelical Christians, too, are seeing the makeup of their churches change drastically.

Nearly one-fifth (19%) of Hispanics in the United States identify as Protestant, a Pew Research study found in 2012. On top of that, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to say they are “born again” or evangelical as opposed to mainline Protestant.

Though Hispanics are still more likely to identify as Catholic – 62% do so, according to Pew – evangelical leaders say they see signs that the number of Hispanics in their churches will only grow in the future.

“The growth in most of our churches is because of immigration. That is the future of our churches,” Wallis said matter-of-factly.

That change is evidenced in the ethnic makeup of the coalition’s leadership. Luis Cortés, president of the evangelical group Esperanza, Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, all signed on to the group early. Additionally, many of the local pastors are from primarily Hispanic churches.

Wallis concludes: “This is our growth, these are out brothers and sisters. We are a diverse body of Christ, we are a very diverse community. This is our family and this is our future.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Immigration • Latino issues • Protestant • Race

soundoff (1,205 Responses)
  1. John P. Tarver

    Europehas so few Christians to offer for imigration and these fine Catholics are all right with me.

    January 14, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • Len

      Better than Muslims and godless Chinese, I assume?

      January 15, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  2. Jack Wolford

    Where were these " Christian Mouthpieces" with influence when HB 56 or SB 1070 were up for support ; and Colorado, Florida and Texas offered the least support and are the States where these guy want to concentrate their efforts with I assume other people's money. Why not work the "hard sell teritories like SC , GA , AL , MS , AZ , UT , PA ,OH , IN , IL ,WI ,MI where you not only will meet some influential friends that will help , but , also have to deal with racist groups as our Immigrants do . Hasn't everybody consumed enough smoke already ?

    January 14, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  3. John P. Tarver

    Hispanic Catholics are much more like Southern Baptists than Irish Catholics. This is an excellent way for the United States to remain a Christian Nation.

    January 14, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • sam stone

      right, johnnie boy....christian nation....pull your head out of your rectum

      January 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • NatL

      Hispanic Catholics are far more into saint and Mary worship than any other Catholics. Most of the lapsed Catholics who get swept up in evangelical churches are from European lines. You don't have a clue what you're talking about.

      January 15, 2013 at 9:52 am |
  4. Milton

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioLEFRZP-_A&w=640&h=390]

    January 14, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  5. Ort

    Illegal is illegal. I do not care if you are a Christian or not. We are a sovereign nation with laws that are supposed to protect our borders. When a person violates the borders of a sovereign nation on purpose, then expect to be deported. If they were such Christians, then they would know what Romans 13 says, and they would obey it. I am tired of the world thinking we owe them. We do not. Obey our laws, come here legally, become a citizen and everything will be fine. Violate our borders, put your family at risk of being broken up, and you have only yourselves to blame.

    January 14, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • dreamer96

      Okay ..Ort....Everyone living in America that is not an American Native Indian should leave now...

      January 14, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Ort

      Dreamer: what a load. Yours is a ridiculous argument used by those with no clue. We have laws that protect the borders. They should be obeyed. EVERY country is allowed to do so, except the U.S., where clueless bleeding hearts such as yourself spout the same old nonsense about the native Americans. When you reach rational adulthood, come back and post.

      January 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Erik

    Reblogged this on It's the Question that Drives Us and commented:
    Thought this was pretty interesting...

    January 14, 2013 at 7:32 am |
  7. Bob

    God doesn't exist. Use reason. It makes good deeds all the more meaningful.

    January 14, 2013 at 6:48 am |
  8. Mike

    Thought it would be the same old message, Hate, Hate ,Hate.....

    These freaks are the American Taliban

    January 14, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  9. drd

    #1 we need to stop giving citizenship to babies of illegals

    #2 we need to make it easier for workers to enter our country legally

    January 14, 2013 at 5:18 am |
  10. Ooh

    Evangelicals are the cancer of Christianity.

    January 14, 2013 at 3:51 am |
  11. DrBoB

    I don't believe for a second that the Catholic church would care one iota about immigration if it weren't for the fact that 62% of Hispanics are Catholic and that this equates to more money in the coffers and more Catholic babies. The human condition is not their focus, money and power is.

    January 14, 2013 at 3:46 am |
    • Mello

      Because those immigrants make millions of dollars. Right? *sarcasm off*

      January 14, 2013 at 3:55 am |
  12. David Crosby

    Christians are dangerous...

    January 14, 2013 at 3:40 am |
  13. Be Kind, Be grateful, Be Respectful

    AMEN to those Pastor's and they have my 100% support in this matter! I am ashame to be reading all the comments, I hate the word IMMIGRATION, in my world its called; hardworkers, committed workers whose focus in life is to provide for their families, and attend church to give their families a strong foundation to stand on and to instill strong core values that is lacking in our coountry today, they have not taken the jobs away from the American People, its the American People who gave the jobs aways because they refuse to work lower level positions; blue collar labor in the manufacturing, distribution, construction, hotel, fields- picking crops, car washes.

    Most low-skilled immigrants are able-bodied individuals who have come to the United States to improve their lives. While they might take menial jobs in our country, their skills would place them solidly in the middle of the pack back home. Many low-skilled (natives, hello Americans) on the other hand, are individuals who are from unstable homes or grew in poor neighborhoods, or they simply do not have what it takes to succeed in a technologically sophisticated society. Why would individuals who did not take jobs when labor demand was strong two or three years ago be more likely to work when new jobs are scarce today? Wake up America

    January 14, 2013 at 2:22 am |
  14. Thomas Sm

    As soon as they pass amnesty, I think it will be time to right an obituary for Social Security and labour rights, we'll just say the "New Deal" (ca. 1935-2013). "The New Deal died a slow death, caught between various arguments from all over the political spectrum and from diverse interest groups over why employers did not have to follow the law and employ American citizens and pay them the legal minimum wage, contribute to FICA, and respect their labour rights. The Left wanted to increase 'diversity'. The Right wanted to cut taxes and eliminate some regulatory agencies. Businesses wanted cheap labour and churches wanted more members. Eventually, the New Deal died not because all its programmes were repealed at once, but because everyone ignored them and the people they were intended to protect became invisible. The debate over New Deal programmes concerned solely the interests of businesses and of foreign victims of globalisation. While these sides may not agree on the legal status of immigrants or what would be their 'just wage', they shared an interest in open borders and ignoring federal law, effectively destroying the livelihood of the native working class in the process."

    January 14, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  15. JimmyAlex777

    All religions are but a feeble attempt of man to interpret that which he clearly has little clue.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:49 am |
    • Siggy

      Or, as Freud put it, "religion is a delusional reinterpretation of reality."

      January 14, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • GayAtheist

      Or, as The GayAtheist says: "Christianity is stupid."

      January 14, 2013 at 2:41 am |
  16. dwerbil

    Insert massive yawn here.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  17. Viva La Virgen De Guadalupe

    If you aren't Catholic, you have no right to call yourself "Hispanic"

    January 14, 2013 at 1:24 am |
    • Joe

      You're insane. Do Hispanics a favor and stop posting your ignorant comments.

      January 14, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • GayAtheist

      If you aren't a child molester, you have no right calling yourself Catholick.

      January 14, 2013 at 2:45 am |
  18. Viva La Virgen De Guadalupe

    Everyone knows TRUE Hispanics are Roman Catholic. Just look at the beautiful churches, works of art, holidays, traditions, etc.

    Evangelicals hate Hispanic culture, but have no culture of their own. Their churches are mostly shoddy, hole-in-the-wall theaters, with no decoration or art of any kind. They annoy everyone on the street with their monotonous preaching. They wave their arms around and cry like little kids. As far as I know, most people in my country can't stand them.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:20 am |
    • Quetzlcoatl

      True hispanics as hispanic. Catholicism is the religion Cortez and the conquistadors force on you on the tip of a sword, the religion whose priests were actively involved in enslaving,killing, and otherwise making miserable hispanic peoples all through Latin America.

      I swear hispanics must not know their own history or they would hate Catholicism. But they still champion the force that crushed their earlier culture, made slaves or corpses of their ancestors, and still tellthem what to do.

      January 14, 2013 at 1:51 am |
    • mich

      Catholicism is the religion of the Spanish conquistadors.

      Evangelicalism is the religion of the American conquistadors.

      January 14, 2013 at 3:55 am |
    • meifumado

      @ Quetzlcoatl
      Its a good point you bring up.

      Also the same can be said for African Muslims, Why would you follow the religion of the people who enslaved and sold you for over a thousand years?

      January 14, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  19. Old Realist

    Illegal means just that. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" means you obey the law of the land. Those words are straight from the lips of Jesus. These people need to read a little.

    January 14, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • NatL

      Legal pot and same se_x marriage are now the law of the land as well, so, OBEY! :-)

      January 14, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • veggiedude

      So how did it work out for him then?

      January 14, 2013 at 2:36 am |
  20. Chris

    I don't buy it...

    January 14, 2013 at 12:29 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.