The usual suspects pushing immigration reform have a new ally in the fight this time — the religious right. Christian conservatives, who stayed on the sidelines in 2006 or opposed reform outright, have sprung into action for the cause. They’re talking to their congregations from the pulpit. They’re urging lawmakers in private meetings to support reform. And they’re even calling for change publicly. The efforts have dramatically changed the dynamics of the debate, so much so that Republicans anxious to vote yes on a deal might have the political cover to do it. “I think it is night and day, particularly among social conservatives,” Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed told POLITICO of the support for immigration reform. Reed’s group released a letter Tuesday that outlines broad goals for reform, like keeping families together, reforming the visa system and securing the border. High profile leaders are also weighing in. Mathew Staver, vice president of Liberty University, the college started by former TV minister Jerry Falwell, is on board. Focus on the Family, which for years has focused on issues like opposing abortion rights and gay marriage, is supporting immigration reform for the first time in its history — even using its radio broadcast that reaches millions to push its message. “The issues had been so demagogued for the last five or six years, it was hopeless to get seriously into this,” said Tom Minnery or Focus on the Family. “It seems the time is better. The time has changed…That’s why we’ve become more active.” Social conservatives are directly targeting GOP offices and trying to show that they can give cover to lawmakers in the South, West and Midwest, who are worried about facing retaliation at the ballot box in 2014. “Many of the most hostile critics got beat, a fact not lost on the other House members,” said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, referring to Republicans who have lost their seats since 2006. “I think there’s a bigger coalition in the House for immigration reform than people think.” (Also on POLITICO: Business, labor leaders talk guest workers at White House) While many of the groups have put together a broad framework of what they support, it’s unclear if the unity will withstand what could turn into an all-out political brawl — especially on tenuous subjects like border enforcement, citizenship and including immigration rights for gays and lesbians. But for now, many involved in the movement say it is more about raising visibility with social conservatives. Nearly a dozen groups, including Bread for the World, Esperanza, Christian Community Development Association and the National Association of Evangelicals, have launched a 40-day “I was a stranger” campaign asking parishioners to read a bible verse dealing with immigrants each day. “We’ve moved beyond the religious leadership in our country on the evangelical side to begin influencing more of the pews,” said Noel Castellanos of CCDA. “We need to inform them and expose them the way we did with our pastors.” So far, the effort has drawn a half million people, according to Castellanos. This shift comes as lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have made a concerted effort to woo conservative leaders.
There has also been a shift in thinking among southern conservative religious leaders, who see Hispanics as a growing part of their congregations.
“Part of it has been a real campaign for awareness of the issue and what’s at stake on the issue,” Land said. “There’s also the fact that some evangelicals have figured out that these people are mostly allies when it comes to social issues and unless you drive them away by being anti-Hispanic, they are going to vote the way social conservatives would like them to.” “This is basically an answered prayer,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the activity. “The conversation has finally evolved where deportation is no longer part of the immigration lexicon. It is now about legalization.” A leader in the Hispanic evangelical movement, Rodriguez has been meeting personally with Republican and Democratic lawmakers and has been working closely with members like Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Rubio. He’s also helping expand the push beyond the activity of Latino and Hispanic individuals, working to connect those pastors with other evangelical leaders that are black and white in cities like Denver, Colo. and Miami, Fla. It’s not just religious leaders looking to help galvanize support from social conservatives. The National Immigration Forum has created its “Bibles, Badges and Business” effort that targets conservative lawmakers by bringing in pastors, law enforcement and business owners into the debate. The group helped facilitate more than 70 meetings on Capitol Hill in December, of which 56 were with Republicans. NIF is preparing to roll out a formal network to help provide a vehicle for sharing and strategy. Ali Noorani, head of the forum, said it just makes sense when looking at how immigration reform is going to get passed. “A conservative voter is going to listen to a conservative leader, especially in conservative states,” Noorani said. “From our perspective, this is about voters hearing from their pastor police chief or business — why their Republican member of Congress needs to be supported in this push for immigration reform.” READ MORE: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/immigrations-new-ally-the-christian-right-87241.html