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.”
Well said Brother!
I sympathize with immigrants. I really do. My wife is an immigrant. However, she went through the proper channels and got a permanent resident card and is currently working on her U.S. citizenship. Our marriage was delayed because of all the paperwork involved in getting her here. We paid several thousand dollars in immigration fees so that said paperwork would be processed. And now that she is a LEGAL immigrant, we still have more expensive fees to pay to complete her U.S. citizenship.
It is not fair to me, my wife, or any other immigrant who worked hard, paid the fees, and obeyed the law to allow others to skip the line and be granted citizenship because they or their parents entered illegally. If they want to be here illegally, I say make them pay for it through heavy taxes until they file the necessary paperwork and pay the fees. It is time for the U.S. government to do what is was designed to do: protect the rights of U.S. citizens, not the rights of illegal immigrants at the expense of U.S. citizens.
Totally agree with this! Finally, someone with some common sense. Rodriguez is dillusional and a complete idiot. Where in the Bible does it say that its ok to break laws? Hispanics are lazy people, and they are ruining this country. The best thung we can do for this country is get all the illegals...and their families out!
Yes people who disagree with you or have different ideas to combat the same issue we all agree needs addressed are idiots and delusional. Hispanics are lazy? Such that a large number of them perform the low wage, labor intensive jobs us motivated Americans are so eager to do just to get by? Hispanics are not ruining this country. They are adding to the diversity just as your ancestors did, which is what makes this country great. The best thing we could do is address our immigration policies. Make them more efficient Jake and his wife, and work out a way for those illegals already in the country to come forward for a path to citizenship. The money/time that would be required to find/remove all illegals in this country makes that completely infeasible.
“I am hopeful that Congress can walk and chew gum and the same time"- That's a pretty big leap of faith, even for an Evangelical :)
Jesus Christ chose to die on the cross because he was a homeless schizophrenic that was out of his mind. After that one act of stupidity, a religion is born. Congrats on following it.
Joseph P. Smith ate a wild Mushroom one day, and had an encounter with Jesus, and that experience changed his life, and many more....So what else is new...
Don't forget about Moses and the burning bush. What was he smokin!!!
In that case, I must be a prophet as well. I spoke to many talking bushes in my youth. So many colors....
Don't Forget how the Israelites wander the desert for 40 years with Moses leading the way... Following a pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night....Many their must have been smoking some mean hashish, and munchkin on some wild mushrooms.... or eating crazy bread...or some wild desert wacky weed....
In the 1960's there were lots of wandering hippies in the streets of San Francisco, and they took years to straighten up....
Here we go, the religion organizations are in frenzy. They are losing their customers and need to find a new source of undereducated people to brain-wash.. hmm weird haven’t we seen this before? Afghanistan? Taliban? hmm weird.... but wait.. its okay they are not doing this in a 3rd world country and not muslim or any other religion.. whew.. we are safe now..
I guess I can go back reading my Turner Diaries novel..
The Evangelicals are in a survival mode, they want more sheep to fleece so they can make more tax free money.
Is this gonna be on the final, Prof? Cause you're office hours are cryptic, "tuesday 2-4pm", my a@s!
Unless these Christofascist freaks are spreading the message they they intend to isolate themselves on a remote island and wait for Sky Daddy to rapture them, I really don't care to hear any messages from them.
If religious groups are going to dabble in the affaira of the government, then they need to be taxed. Period
Spot on, Milton...
As a business they should be taxed anyway. Or abolish corporate tax would be the best move in my book.
Agreed. Tax them.
Once again we see extreme propaganda from CNN to " push a new democrat voter drive " that costs taxpayers hundreds of billions in welfare and displaced "American" labor workers!
These are MADE UP EVANGELICAL GROUPS intended for – PURE DECEPTION – PURE SOCIALIST PROPAGANDA
Those Americans aren't going to mow lawns and pick fruits and vegetables. Nor are any of those Amercans willing to pay higher prices for food to allow decent wages for farm workers.
And how do I know that you're not made up for the purpose of promoting propaganda for the other agenda?
You actually believe CNN has it together enough to be "propaganda"? You ARE nuts.
Milton – you are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG about that. Back in the 1960's and 70s when I grew up, America did not have HALF of the illegal population it had now and there were PLENTY of fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices. The idea that there is a "net-gain" benefit to cheap labor is patently false – especially when you factor in the SOCIAL COSTS of crime, welfare, police, hospitals that increase with a large immigrant population. California, once the richest state in the land is now bankrupt – need I say more?
Religion is for the seriously weak -minded. Just because you worship Mickey Mouse doesn't mean you have gone through the correct channels to become a TAX PAYING citizen. To enter the greatest country in the world one must go through the proper LEGAL CHANNELS. Just because you pray to some imaginary ghost in the sky doesn't make it legal.
I'm an atheist, too, but there is absolutely no reason to insult the intelligence of people who choose to believe. If you don't like others trying to impose their views on you, don't do the same. Also, you seem to be mis-informed as to the "ease" of entering this country legally. Immigration reform is definately needed. If anything, "illegals" are the greatest victims of our current policies, not the perpetrators.
Erin. You are a liar. Another "Atheist" who thinks we need to placate and be nice to the Xtians. Sure you are, sure you are. You are a Christian troll. I see your posts. Liar.
So, Allen, i'm not allowed to be a "real" atheist unless I spew hatred like you?
"spew hatred" yes, show me that..
Im not going to honor the bronze age belief system of people trying to control my life and dictate policy. Im not going to be nice to someone who believes in magic and angels and persecuting people.
Just remember that this is on CNN.com. When CNN has a story about Christians it is from their point of view, not most Christians.
So... you're saying most "real" Chirstians are heartless xenophobes? Good to know.
The USA was founded by great founding fathers based on the principles of the Christian bible – so it is right to embrace and help the poor and help them (the the USA has the most history in doing that then any other country that's why people from all over the world came here the last 200 years not anywhere else). Here's the thing: when someone comes here illegally from South America, they cut the line and make the legal person applying right, have to wait longer, simple logic what happens to you when someone cuts your line at the store? So Illegals are screwing other poor people from around the world (and the Bible says don't cheat or lie right?). One last thing, immigrants you're getting opportunity here you can't get in the countries you came from (that's why you chose to come here) – so be a little grateful to the US and our culture and practices – you're benefitting greatly from her.
I usually stay well clear of Evangelical Christians but maybe I should give em a chance then........ thats pretty cool
Yeah right! All you care about is that "these groups" are shilling the Socialist Democrat Platform new voter drive.
Wow, evangelicals focusing on an issue Jesus would actually have agreed with for a change!
Thankfully Jesus doesn't dictate our immigration policy.
Go Atheist Erin!
Gosh, not one mention of the fact that this is going to be SPECTACULARLY UNPOPULAR among white Southern evangelicals??? (I'm cool with it, Hillary 2016!!)
I've never been impressed by Evangelical Christians .......'til now.
Embracing political issues for personal gain is the worst kind of hypocrisy - I support The Dream Act and other immigration reform issues, but I have no dog in that fight. My endorsements are sincere. Why do I have a feeling this is about political manipulation at its heart. A cause that is genuine and needs political support may not fare well when it because "used" for another outcome that is far removed from this intent of a toehold in political power. I am skeptical of the intent of evangelicals to this "change of heart" in their political persuasions.
The article states that they want congress to come up with a path to citizenship. News flash – we have one; a legal one. What part of illegal immigrant, illegal anything don't you understand? People immigrate to this great country legally every single day. Why should illegals be given a shortcut ahead of those who are wishing to come here legally? Don't matter what foolish religion you practice – illegal, is illegal.
Tyson Foods runs advertisement in Mexico, in Spanish, for jobs in America at their meat processing plants....The top 1% really like the cheap labor, the large farms really like the cheap labor, the factories really like the cheap labor...Right to Work States really like the cheap labor....If the Top 1% can not make Americans work for Chinese rates...then they will use the immigrants, legal or illegal to do the jobs....
Why have we not passed a National Labor Law to put the Company CEO, or company plant bosses in jail, if they use illegal immigrant workers....Because the top 1% would never let a bill like that pass in Congress...
It's the bleeding heart liberals who would cause the biggest uproar if that ever became law.
I believe a preacher's sermon should be about speaking The Good News, The Gospel of Jesus Christ; not discussing politics. But I'm not at all shocked that once again Christians have high-jacked what Jesus Christ did at Calvary for their own agendas & desires.
Give GOD what He/She/It/They are due. And give to yourself & others what we are due. But don't mix the 2. Keep them separate.
Jesus was VERY political. Time to re-read the "good news".
It's time to tax these people since they keep poking their noses into government issues.
They are the cause of some of the worst human sufferings by overpopulation in the world.
Tax Tax Tax!
Hey if the world is overpopulated, nothing stopping you from taking yourself out of the gene pool.
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.