The leader of a national Latino evangelical organization says non-Latino faith leaders must make a greater effort to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
In a written public appeal to evangelical faith leaders, Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC), said: "Even though today we see a proactive reaction from our Anglo evangelical brethren, the truth is that there will be no comprehensive immigration reform passed in Congress, unless those most conservative members of the House of Representatives will be compelled to vote in favor of [it].”
Rivera’s call to his fellow pastors comes as the role of evangelical leaders grows more critical amid discussions in the House of Representatives over how to handle illegal immigration. The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill in late June that, among other things, tightens enforcement, provides a path to legal status for many of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, and expands visas for foreign workers.
But Republicans in the House, where they hold a majority, are divided over how to handle immigration reform. The more conservative members are firmly against giving undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize, viewing that as amnesty, or a reward for law-breakers.
Many political experts say that some of these conservative lawmakers may be swayed by faith leaders and their congregants from their congressional districts. This is where, they say, evangelical leaders could wield significant influence.
On Wednesday, hundreds of evangelical leaders plan to converge in Washington D.C. to hold a prayer for immigration reform, and to meet with members of Congress to urge them to pass a measure this year.
“They say they’re praying for reform, and prayers are fine,” Rivera said. “I believe in the power of prayer. But praying is not enough. They have to go up to the pulpit and preach about immigration, they need to excite their congregations, get them to support this and to let their congressional representatives know.”
Roughly 25 percent of Americans are evangelicals; that includes some 20 percent of Latinos. Many non-Latino evangelicals are in some of most conservative congressional districts.
Non-Latino evangelical leaders say they are working to push for immigration reform.
“Evangelicals are concerned that the immigration system is broken,” said Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “It needs to be fixed in a way that secures our borders and provides opportunities for immigrants who are here to earn legal status and share with us responsibilities and rights.”
Asked to comment on Rivera’s concerns that non-Latino evangelical leaders are not making enough of an effort, Carey said: “There’s always more than can be done. But we’ve been doing a lot. We have been educating our members, we’ve been meeting with members of Congress, encouraging them to take a compassionate approach to immigration reform.”
In the last effort to push for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, Latino evangelical leaders were largely on their own in trying to build momentum. After the effort failed, despite President George Bush’s commitment to pressing for legislation, Latino evangelical leaders concluded that they needed the help of pastors whose congregants were the constituents of the lawmakers with the most hard-line views on immigration.
“The Anglo church leaders simply were not there with us, for us, in 2007,” said Rivera, whose organization has a membership of 24,000 churches. “We fought with them to support us. We protested in front of their organization buildings in Washington D.C.”
Rivera acknowledges that non-Latino peers are more involved in – and open to -- immigration reform than they were previously, but their commitment, he said, still falls short.
“Many of them have not done anything to stop the anti-immigrant rhetoric in last year’s election campaigns, and the harsh tone of many lawmakers in their states,” Rivera said.
Rivera said evangelical leaders have proven how vocal and forceful they can be on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
"They were very, very aggressive and persistent in the anti-abortion movement," he said. "So they do it when they feel very committed to an issue."
Carey said that many pastors and parishioners of evangelical churches have become more sympathetic to the aspect of immigration reform that calls for giving undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize. That is because, he said, immigrants increasingly are joining evangelical churches.
"My wife's family is from Mexico," Carey said. "And I have two sisters who are married to immigrants."
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, wrote an editorial in June that helping undocumented immigrants come out of the shadows is a moral imperative, one that is “consistent with the values of our Christian faith.”
Evangelicals are also seen as a crucial voting bloc by prospective national candidates.
On Friday, for instance, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and the son of former 2012 presidential candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, traveled to Iowa to court evangelical pastors.
Cruz, who supports a hard-line on immigration and does not support a path to legal status for the undocumented, spoke about the importance of evangelicals in the electorate process.
"Pastors in Iowa and across the country are critical leaders, and pastors have a responsibility to speak up for their convictions," Cruz said after the speech, according to the Associated Press. "I am honored to have the opportunity to visit with pastors who are speaking the truth about the enormous challenges this nation faces."
Paul, who is also against a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, echoed Cruz at the event, according to the AP.
"I think the Republican Party base is people who go to church,” he said. “If you poll people and ask them if they go to church, maybe 60 percent of them vote Republican."
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente