John Cochran and Shawn Zeller, Congressional Quarterly
Breaking News from the Hispanic Church
March 27, 2006
As if the broad divide over immigration weren’t complicated enough for the different factions of Republicans, the internecine politics gets even more baroque: A core constituency of the party — religious voters — is itself fractured over the moral questions of how the United States ought to respond to the wave of illegal immigrants.
U.S. Catholic bishops, leaders of an important religious group that the GOP has been working hard to win over, call for compassion and understanding for illegal immigrants — and denounce as uncharitable and short-sighted a House-passed bill that focuses solely on border enforcement. So, too, are leaders of World Relief, an aid organization founded by the conservative National Association of Evangelicals, advocating a more Samaritan-like approach.
To make its case, World Relief quotes the Book of Leviticus: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself. . . .”
Then again, other evangelicals, Catholics and religious people just as passionately argue the other side. Their priority is strengthening the borders and cracking down on illegal immigration, which they say threatens the welfare of families here who have followed the rules, including the working-poor.
Conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic, has written that any “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, including a guest worker program, such as the one proposed by President Bush, is “immoral.”
Immigration, unlike abortion, is not a top-tier concern for this constituency. Some of the biggest names on the religious right, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have stayed on the sidelines, saying they need to stick with the moral family issues closest to their mission. But there are strong feelings among other conservative religious leaders on both sides of the debate.
And that further complicates the calculus for congressional Republicans, who need every last vote they can get in this November’s midterm elections. Stand one way, and they anger religious conservatives who see things the way Schlafly does. Choose the other side, and they turn off other evangelicals and, perhaps most important, Catholics, with whom they have begun to make successful inroads.
Catholics are still sharply divided politically, “so even secondary issues could make a difference” in the GOP’s efforts to make them a part of their coalition, says political scientist John Green of the University of Akron.
The divisions among Christian conservative leaders reflect the conflicted feelings of religion-minded voters. In January, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported that 64 percent of white evangelicals surveyed said that making it tougher for illegal immigrants to enter the United States should be a top priority.
And yet, another Pew survey last year also found members of large religious communities, including evangelicals, “all over the block” in their views toward immigrants, as Green puts it. World Relief is not a left-wing group, outside the mainstream of the evangelical world. Its founder, the National Association of Evangelicals, is the umbrella group for traditionally conservative churches that together claim 30 million congregants.
If the issue is politically complicated, there’s also nothing easy about it morally, says conservative Christian leader Gary L. Bauer. The poor families now here legally, who have to compete with illegal immigrants for low-skilled jobs, also have a claim on the conscience of the public, he says. “The justice argument is very muddled at that point.”
Some conservative Christians argue that illegal immigration hurts all families by straining the health care system, schools and law enforcement. Assisting illegal immigrants or allowing them to become legal once they have slipped in illegally also encourages law-breaking, something that’s counter to Christian morality, they say.
God “would never condone law-breaking,” says Sadie Fields, state chair of the Christian Coalition of Georgia.
What Should a Christian Do?
Jenny Hwang of World Relief’s refugee and immigration program says no one supports illegal immigration, and everyone wants the borders secured. But policy makers should recognize the human toll of an immigration system that has long been broken, she says.
Last fall, that group, the Catholic bishops and others signed a statement calling for a legal, orderly way for migrants to enter and find work. They also want measures allowing “hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows” and work toward becoming legal residents. They are not talking about amnesty, Hwang says: Immigrants should have to go to the back of the line, pay heavy fines and otherwise earn legal status over time.
Richard Land, a leader of the conservative Southern Baptists, says his denomination might be open to such measures, as long as the border is secure and illegal immigrants aren’t getting a free pass.
Land, the bishops and others also criticize the House border security bill for, among other things, making it a crime to assist people known to be illegal, something they say would make criminals of Christians trying to do their religious duty to the needy.
For the bishops, there’s an added, institutional imperative to this fight: Many Hispanic immigrants are Catholics themselves.
Many are also conservatives, argues Samuel Rodriguez Jr., a conservative evangelical minister and head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. That means it’s in the interests of both religious conservatives and the GOP to get behind initiatives to put them on the path to becoming citizens, he says.
Polls show that Hispanic immigrants support the social conservative line on abortion and same-sex relationship, among other hot-button social issues. If the GOP turns its back on them, the party risks “alienating, not just for a generation, but forever, the fastest-growing face of the traditionalist conservative voting bloc,” says Rodriguez.