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Not so fast: Evangelicals differ with their leaders on immigration reform

Many leaders support citizenship moves, but rank and file differ

It's been in the headlines for months.

"Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes."

"Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform."

"Obama's immigration plan encourages evangelicals."

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it's not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Yes, scores of leaders, including prominent conservatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, have signed on to such coalitions as the Evangelical Immigration Table, Christian Churches Together and G92 — all of which advocate for comprehensive reform.

But among the rank and file, the attitude is something closer to "not so fast."

Allan Wall, an Oklahoma schoolteacher and practicing evangelical who writes about immigration, put it this way: "Despite the stereotype of some kind of monolithic army of evangelical zombies being controlled by their leaders, in reality it's a rather fractious bunch."

Data appear to support Wall's view. A June 2012 Pew Forum survey found that evangelicals prioritize "better border security" over "creating a path to citizenship" by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1. Among the American public in general, the ratio is 1 to 1.

The sense among many, if not most, evangelicals is that the government will grant citizenship to illegal immigrants, but not hold up the enforcement end of the bargain.

Show the enforcement

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative advocacy group Eagle Forum, estimates that roughly 80 percent of her roughly 30,000-member organization is evangelical.

"I don't hear any of them saying they support these ideas to give legal residency to illegal immigrants," she said.

Schlafly points to past disappointments as the reason for their views.

"The thing is, we tried this amnesty with Reagan and it was a big failure. In fact, it was a big fraud. And if you keep doing the same thing, why are you going to get a different result?"

But Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, bristled at the notion that current proposals constitute amnesty.

Land, along with eight other evangelical leaders, heads the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group of more than 100 pastors, academics and other leaders calling for a bipartisan solution on immigration.

"What we're proposing is not amnesty," he said. "If you have to pay a fine and back taxes, and you have to learn to read, write and speak English to stay here and you have to go on probationary status, that's not amnesty."

Wall, who lived in Mexico for 15 years and whose wife is Mexican, isn't buying it. "We're not very confident the government is going to do all these things — the back taxes and showing English proficiency — because of the simple fact that the Obama administration right now is not enforcing the law anyway."

He said that if lawmakers first concentrated on security, he could see people warming up to other measures.

Schlafly agreed. "The American people want the government to enforce the laws we already have. The American people wanted a fence, for example, and I remember that Congress passed a law to build a fence and George W. Bush had a photo op signing the law to build the fence. Well, they never built it.

"When we turn on our TV and see a real, honest-to-goodness fence, we might talk again."

An immigration reform proposal introduced by a bipartisan group of eight senators in January has garnered the support of many top evangelical leaders.

The framework calls for an increase in manpower and equipment for border security and would create a commission to monitor enforcement. At the same time, it would grant probation to illegal immigrants who come forward and register with the government.

When asked if this proposal would guarantee the enforcement of immigration laws, James Edwards, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said "absolutely not." It would, however, grant de facto citizenship to illegal immigrants who go on probation, he said.

Family concern

The Southern Baptist Convention isn't the only high-profile conservative group involved with the Evangelical Immigration Table. Focus on the Family signed on in June.

Senior vice president of policy Tom Minnery said the group's position, while calling for a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, doesn't necessarily go as far as citizenship.

Concern for families living under the burden of potential deportation is the main reason Focus on the Family joined the coalition, he said.

Wall doesn't believe that reason is completely fair because immigrants who choose to come illegally know up front that deportation and family separation are risks they're taking. American families are separated every day when fathers or mothers commit crimes and go to jail.

"Are all the Americans who've committed crimes going to be released from jail?" he asked.

Minnery conceded that the concern over enforcement is legitimate. There's a "great lack of confidence" in the government to deliver, he said. "Without question, it will be up to the politicians to convince the public that this time a truly comprehensive solution is in the offing."

A survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted in January found that 70 percent were not confident the government would keep its promise to enforce immigration laws if it grants legal status to illegal immigrants.

The poll, conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, found that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats shared this lack of confidence.

On leadership

Land insists that evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform is widespread, pointing to a 2011 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on the issue. It passed with an 80 percent vote, he said.

"But a lot of people simply aren't being represented," Wall counters. "I don't feel that all the people in the grass roots and in the pews have been informed about this."

American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer, also an evangelical, agreed and pointed to the Pulse Opinion Research survey. "The leadership of the evangelical community is almost completely out of alignment right now with ordinary evangelicals and ordinary Americans."

Why the disconnect?

"It's kind of a mystery to me," said Fischer, who calls many of the leaders friends. "They just seem to have all stampeded off the cliff on this issue together, like the psychology of lemmings, I guess.

"I think it's because of the shallow, superficial appeal of being considered compassionate by the mainstream media. They get a lot of fawning, favorable press, and they eat that up. They know the New York Times and Washington Post will say nice things about them."

Arguing compassion

Wall said faith leaders are trying to "guilt trip" congregations to support citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"It's shameless the way these evangelical leaders will take these arguments and put a thin veneer of religiosity on top of it. As a Christian, we do want to help the needy. And that's through Christian charity — a person giving his own resources in the name of Christ to the needy."

Fischer said that any discussion of compassion must also include compassion for the people who have been waiting in line for years to come legally, as well as compassion for American citizens who have borne welfare, law enforcement, education and medical care costs at a time when jobs are scarce and family finances are tight.

"I do think that evangelicals, because we place a high value on love and compassion, can easily be fooled into compromising justice based on a shallow understanding of compassion," he said.