In Theory: Evangelicals for immigration reform

Reforming America's immigration laws to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship has long been seen as a cause championed by liberals.

But now a group that's not exactly known for liberal ideas has joined the call to relax immigration laws: the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention is joining with other evangelical groups to spend $250,000 on a media campaign to support a bill that would allow America's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for citizenship. The bill also would revamp immigration laws. "Our involvement signals the fact that we don't see this as a blue-state, red-state, culture war question," Russell Moore, the new head of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said. The convention isn't the only religious group advocating change; the "Nuns On The Bus" have kicked off a nationwide tour to push for the new legislation.

Q. What do you think of evangelicals' efforts to reform immigration laws?

The reformation of immigration law is a valid concern of the church. In dealing with national policy issues like immigration, it's appropriate to emulate the laws that God gave to Israel, the nation he formed on Earth. God's laws teach us treat immigrants with justice and compassion while at the same time requiring their adherence to our laws.

Immigrants deserve justice: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him" (Exodus 22:21). In Leviticus 24:22 God said: "There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God." While immigrants should never have the same full rights as citizens, we should guarantee justice for them.

Immigrants deserve compassion: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." (Leviticus 19:34). Gleanings (remnants of the harvest) were to be left for both the needy and the immigrant. The Sabbath rest was guaranteed for immigrants. Compassion for immigrants would be easier when Israel remembered that they themselves had been foreigners in Egypt. "You yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers" (Exodus 23:9).

Immigrants should obey our national laws. Immigrants were allowed to celebrate the Passover, but they had to be circumcised first. Leviticus 24:16 commanded that "the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.... The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the name, shall be put to death." While being compassionate, we cannot disregard national laws intended for our security and common well-being.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


America has always been a nation of immigrants, and where the rule of law prevails. We have also been a nation where the idea of compassion is a current that runs through society.

The decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to support immigration reform is an acknowledgment that our society's cultural landscape is changing. It would also seem to acknowledge that our laws should evolve to align with our nation's compassionate character.

In its decision to support current legislation to reform immigration, the SBC risks going against the prevailing attitude of its followers. For those who support immigration reform, they may call this courageous leadership. For those who oppose, they may call this a political sell-out.

For those looking at the group from the outside, the timing of this does beg a question.

The Republican/conservative/religious-right movement (of which the SBC is a core constituency) has seen its political successes waning. Was the SBC's move an attempt to bolster that movement? Would this support for immigration reform have come about if that political-religious movement was more politically successful?

Is their support of immigration reform a play for the Hispanic vote, or is it rooted in compassionate conservatism? The answer may be both.

Whatever the case, I believe the move is a positive one. America is changing, evolving, all while adhering to the principals of our Constitution and the vision of our founding fathers. The SBC's stance isn't a compromising of principal, but rather it reflects a tone of compassion and political realism that is required in American politics.

Omar Ricci


I'm ecstatic! For me, this is the Holy Spirit at work. I first began to hope that conservatives and liberals could have a conversation when some conservatives began to champion the environmental movement. Usually, being a "greenie" was a liberal cause. But conservatives became interested, pointing to such biblical phrases as, "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24).

As for their being interested in reforming the immigration laws, praise the Lord! Really, how can one look at Jesus or hear the story of the Good Samaritan and not realize that we are all brothers and sisters? And for one nation-state to draw a line across the desert and say, "This is ours on this side; that's yours on that side" — how unchristian or unbiblical can one be?

I am not so naive as to believe there are no international problems; there certainly are. But it is interesting to me that the "immigration problem" involves our neighbors to the south and not our white neighbors to the north. So, welcome, Southern Baptists, and everybody else who wants to see a just and lasting solution to the "immigration problem."

As followers of Jesus or Moses or Muhammad, can any of us believers do anything other than urge fairness and decency? Besides, as a former fan of Superman on TV, I believe in "truth, justice and the American way," which means fairness and decency.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


I applaud this active lobbying of Congress by a group advocating for the interests and welfare of their human members and hope it can be heard above the roar of money that too often holds sway there.

Russell Moore explains that Southern Baptist policy has changed because "more immigrants have joined their congregations," and members have come to know them as people. The Baptists have achieved a level of understanding of realpolitik that the GOP could learn from.

While their statement sounds broadly liberal on the face of it, calling for "compassion and fairness for the sojourners among us," digging a little deeper I find another press release threatening to withhold support for the Senate immigration reform bill if provisions for reuniting same-sex partners are added.

In the interest of completeness, since our question uses the "e" word to represent the right-wing, fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism, I will summarize from their website what some original evangelicals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, advocate in the way of immigration reform. They support reuniting families and integrating the marginalized and refugees without exception, protecting all workers' rights and economic well-being, and just and humane immigration enforcement.

They also call for action on the root causes of forced migration, including extreme poverty, unemployment, persecution and intolerance, war, genocide, environmental degradation, anti-worker trade policies and, for good measure, "other forms of injustice."

Sounds like a good to-do list to me.

Roberta Medford


I believe the evangelical community, along with many other Americans, recognizes that our undocumented population spans generations. They are grandparents who have worked in this country and contributed to our communities for decades, young families and many children who hold citizenship by virtue of being born here.

The notion of uprooting or separating these families is a proposition that most Christians, given a chance to think about it, will reject. So I'm not surprised that evangelical groups are endorsing an attempt to resolve the issue in an orderly and compassionate way.

The question of illegal or unauthorized immigration is difficult because it strikes deep emotional chords for those on both sides. This is especially true for politically conservative Americans, a category that includes many members of the LDS church, who struggle to reconcile their respect for the law and their culture with the obligation to be compassionate.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the First Presidency of the LDS church, was among 14 religious leaders who met with President Obama in March to discuss, in general principle, his plans for immigration reform. Uchtdorf surprised many by saying afterward that Obama's message was "totally in line with our values." In a brief interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, he said something else worth considering. He pointed out that for decades, many Americans and their government in essence looked the other way as thousands of immigrants crossed the border to provide cheap labor. Uchtdorf said he supports laws that would require new immigrants to follow a legal process to enter the U.S., but he discouraged harsh judgment of those whose arrival was quietly tolerated or tacitly encouraged by those who stood to benefit from their presence.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


As an American whose grandfather was a German immigrant, whose matriarchal lineage is Irish, and whose great-grandmother was Cherokee, I speak with many concerns. I also married a woman born in Mexico City who had a Jewish mother, so don't paint me insensitive.

Most evangelicals have no disdain for immigrants but wish to support the law, and our country suffers dealing with illegals, those cutting in line, so to speak, ahead of those legally earning citizenship. Many remember how relatives made efforts to speak only English, to fly Old Glory, and to work for the American Dream. Today, we see illegal foreigners flout the law, spend our welfare and thrive under our radar, reaping benefits without concern for us. They also wave their native flags and act as if they're preferred. But I personally know folks that have crossed the fence or swam the river who desperately want to be us. I love them and want to help. If the SBC is looking out for them, we are in good company if we support their efforts toward reasonable reform.

But let me share something that's been on my mind. South of our border the citizens are struggling to get out. They want freedom; they want to live. Why don't our esteemed leaders just buy Mexico? Crazy as that sounds, the United States now has a Mexican population that rivals its country of origin, and if we'd just pay off their leadership, I'd be all for making every Mexican immigrant here an immediate citizen of the United States of America. We could work together to ensure Mexico's absorption, and real law would supplant the drug cartels, while we'd strengthen with resources via the merger. The economy could boost, and prejudices would be quelled. Whattaya say?

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


I don't really know why some evangelicals and Catholics have changed their stance on immigration laws in the United States and have started to support bills that open the possibility of citizenship to undocumented U.S. residents. But I wholeheartedly support their efforts. Whether it is because of the biblical injunction to "welcome the stranger" or from the Unitarian Universalist principle to "confirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person," I believe it is the right thing to do.

Those who have come to this country without documentation are not "illegal." No person is illegal. And most of those who have come here from other countries are people who have become integrated into our society — holding jobs, buying homes, paying taxes and raising families. Their children are American citizens, and our laws that work to separate these children from their parents are wrong.

I am not talking about people who are dangerous criminals. The undocumented people I know are people who simply wanted better lives for themselves than they could find in their home countries. Why is wanting a better life for yourself and your family a crime? And why should children pay the price for our desire to punish their parents for the same things most others in our country want?

Our current immigration system takes these parents into custody and keeps them from their families for months, and even years, in inhumane conditions, without the support of lawyers or even the ability to talk with their spouses or children. Meanwhile their families are left without the contact and support of those who have nurtured and loved them for their whole lives. I believe that all people of faith should open our hearts and our country to these human beings who are our brothers and sisters. That is what we are called to do.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


This has always been a nation of immigrants and should have a compassionate legal framework for how immigration is managed.

Evangelicals are probably influenced by the same factors that lead other groups and individuals to support immigration reform. Immigrants have become growing parts of the membership for churches and other institutions. We meet immigrants everyday and see how they have the same hopes and dreams that we have. The Bible has many injunctions to welcome the stranger to the land. Leviticus 19:34 says, "love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

We citizens should remember how our ancestors came to this land and do all we can to support loving and rational immigration rules.

Steven Gibson


I am an immigrant from Korea. My father came to the United States to pastor a Southern Baptist Church in the 1950s. His intention was that we would quickly follow him, but due to immigration and financial requirements, it actually took several years.

I know what it's like to be a young child and come to a strange culture, with strange food and a language you can't understand. I know what it's like to be reunited with a parent that you scarcely know. My family and I faced many adjustment challenges, and we were legal immigrants. I can't imagine the difficulties that the many undocumented immigrants experience.

I believe that scripture is very clear about how we are to welcome and treat immigrants. Leviticus 19:33–34 states: "Do not take advantage of immigrants who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born people and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God."

Jesus emphasized that our treatment of others is synonymous with our treatment of him. He echoed the commandment to do good to the immigrant in Matthew 25:35 when he said, "…I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home."

I am for immigration law reform that makes it easier for people who don't have a police record and possess good work records to become legal immigrants. We need to go out of our way to pass good laws to welcome the immigrants who are already among us. We also need to remember that all of us who are not Native Americans were at one time immigrants to this country.

Ché Ahn
HRock Church

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