President Obama’s new plan to supply work permits to certain illegal immigrants arrives as conservatives make moves to court a growing Hispanic voting bloc that is disillusioned with Obama’s deportation policies.
On Tuesday, conservative evangelical leaders joined forces with some liberals in support of immigration reform. And earlier this spring, Florida senator and potential vice presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R) proposed a scaled back version of the Dream Act, which received a hearing from some immigrant activists frustrated with Obama.
“Rubio has moved the ball forward,” according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “For us, it’s a moral issue.” In 2011, his denomination (the largest among evangelicals) passed a resolution endorsing a “path to legal status” for undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
While evangelical leaders are clearly on the move, they face key challenges, even among their own followers:
1. Very few evangelical and born-again Protestants think of the immigration debate in religious terms. The religious angle itself may be new to many evangelicals. While majorities of white evangelical Protestants in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll said religious beliefs were the single biggest factor on their views of same-sex marriage and abortion, just 12 percent said religion was the top influence on immigration. Only about one in six reports ever hearing their clergy speak out on immigration. (A Maryland Washington Post poll this year found 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants said their religious beliefs were the biggest influence on their thinking on gay marriage).
2. Evangelicals (and conservatives more broadly) are skeptical of immigrant contributions. A Pew poll last spring found 55 percent of evangelicals said immigrants are a burden to the United States because they take jobs, housing and health care, while 33 percent said they strengthen the country. By contrast, non-evangelical Protestants are more evenly split and majorities of Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated say immigrants strengthen the United States with their hard work and talents.
3. A Quinnipiac poll last year found 59 percent of all voters said “stricter law enforcement” was the top priority in dealing with immigration, while 32 percent chose “integrating illegal immigrants into Americans society.” The margin was even greater among white evangelicals, 76 to 16 percent. About as many said they wanted their state to pass an immigration law like that in Arizona.
On individual policy elements, evangelicals are more supportive of their leaders’ ideas. Big majorities of evangelical Protestants — as well as other Americans — supported increased border security and a path to legal status in a March 2011 Pew survey. The coalition of evangelical leaders thinks both are needed. Land noted “an only law enforcement policy is an impediment to what Americans want.”
Of course, the immigration debate has not played out that way in the past. Whether evangelicals and Rubio can change that, only time will tell.