Rising diversity in evangelicalism shifting immigration debate

Correction: A previous version of this article described Jenny Yang as representing the National Association of Evangelicals. She is with World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the association. This version has been updated.


Anila Karunakar joins fellow evangelicals during the Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform at the Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

When evangelical leaders started speaking out more in 2009 about the need for immigration reform and circulated a statement, Chicago pastor Sandra Van Opstal wasn’t sure whether to sign. She worked for the huge evangelical campus ministry InterVarsity, and organization leaders were quiet on an issue that has sharply divided evangelicals.

“We didn’t want to disturb any unity” among evangelicals, she said of her and other InterVarsity staff members who wanted to sign the general document. Ultimately, she signed without her InterVarsity title.

But on Wednesday, Van Opstal — now a member of InterVarsity’s Latino leadership team — was the face of what longtime activists say was the biggest evangelical event yet to advocate for immigration reform. The daughter of South Americans, Van Opstal prayed with and rallied a sweaty Capitol Hill church filled with more than 250 evangelicals headed for a day of lobbying at lawmakers’ offices across the street. InterVarsity was a public backer of the event.

“Few things are as polarizing as immigration, and we don’t know what will happen, but now InterVarsity has a commitment to stay at the table,” Van Opstal said.

As a bipartisan immigration bill was filed in the Senate, a small but notable uptick in evangelical support for reform was underway. The events Wednesday were organized by several pro-reform groups including a coalition of evangelical pastors called the Evangelical Immigration Table.

The day started with an Evangelical Immigration Table news conference at the Capitol attended by a small but prominent group of evangelical leaders.

That was followed by spiritual music and speeches to rev up Hill-bound congregants who had traveled from as far as Phoenix and the Carolinas.

The event felt much more like a church service than a policy rally, and that was the point. While more evangelical leaders are speaking out on immigration and polls show some shift among the rank and file, U.S. evangelicals remain deeply split on the topic and Wednesday was about advancing the ball, while at the same time keeping things general and upbeat. Polls continue to show evangelicals lagging when it comes to everything from whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to legally stay to whether they strengthen the country.

“For evangelicals, the rule of law has trumped the desire to empathize. But we feel we are at a tipping point,” said Jenny Yang of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Members of the Evangelical Immigration Table laid out general principles Wednesday but said they didn’t want to go further out of respect for evangelicals who don’t agree. Reform, they said, should include respect for the rule of law, keeping families together, creating a path to legal status and securing national borders.

The new major player in the effort is Focus on the Family, a large ministry spreading overseas, particularly in Latin America. The group was silent in 2006, the last time immigration reform came up in a major way.

“Focus feels very strongly that the present situation is very tough on families and very tough on kids,” said Focus official Tim Goeglein before the news conference.

Latinos, the largest group of U.S. immigrants, are a fast-growing presence in the American church. The Catholic Church will become majority Latino in the next two decades. Latinos make up more than 15 percent of U.S. evangelicalism, said Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

Asked about data showing that 58 percent of white evangelicals say growing numbers of newcomers threaten U.S. values, he said change would come, if slowly.

Two or three decades ago, Latinos weren’t “even considered” when evangelicals talked about immigration. “I’m a pastor. You know what my business is? Hope.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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