Old-Time Religion and New Americans

Scriptural commands that Christians should respect the law and help strangers in their midst are the two themes driving a lobbying effort by Hispanic evangelical leaders on behalf of immigration reform measures that would both tighten the border and allow the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country a route to citizenship.

Catholic leaders such as Dallas' former bishop have spoken in support of immigrant rights since the issue rose to the top of the charts in Washington last year. Now they're being joined by Hispanic evangelical leaders whose churches—many of them are Pentecostal—are seeing booming growth in the number of Latino converts. The Hispanic ministers are also reaching out to their conservative brothers and sisters to win support for compromises that would deal less harshly with immigrants already in the country illegally.

Hispanic evangelical pastors lobbied Congress this week for legislation on border security, a guest-worker program and citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"We've remained engaged to do our part to make sure some type of immigration reform takes place and that what comes forth is fair and compassionate," says Mark Gonzales, pastor of a small evangelical ministry in Lancaster and an organizer with Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a new coalition that represents thousands of churches across the country. "As spiritual leaders we're also looking at the spiritual parameters—Scripture very clearly tells us to accept the alien or the stranger as one of ours. We're supposed to be good Samaritans and follow the rule of law."

Gonzales and dozens of pastors from different states this week met with senators, held a Capitol Hill news conference and reached out to conservative Christian groups that have been reluctant to embrace a pro-immigrant, pro-reform stance. The coalition, which includes the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an offshoot of the National Association of Evangelicals that, according to its Web site, represents 15 million people nationwide, has made for some unlikely alliances. During the group's last trip to the capital in March, Dr. Richard Land, the conservative president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, joined Senator Edward Kennedy in supporting ways to legalize illegal immigrants.

Pressure on Congress is mounting as advocates on both sides push lawmakers to act this summer, before the presidential campaigns swamp Washington this fall. And as President Bush's foreign policy clout has evaporated, he has made immigration reform the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, urging lawmakers to pass a bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has set aside the last half of May to debate immigration legislation.

The Hispanic evangelical coalition treads a fine line in the polarized immigration debate: They must convince their more conservative peers that it's possible to honor the rule of law while making the immigration system more just, but they also have to be careful not to alienate their allies among the more liberal Latino movement. "This thing has made strange bedfellows," Gonzales says, referring to the coalition's alliance with civil rights groups such as La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Even though we may not agree 100 percent on all of the components, overall we agree on the need for comprehensive immigration reform."

Proposals in Congress face opposition from both sides of the aisle, with some Democrats saying they're too punitive and some Republicans using the words "disguised amnesty" to describe provisions that allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country or return after paying fines. Gonzales supports a House bill presented last month by Representatives Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that would increase border enforcement, provide law enforcement relief for border towns and allow certain illegal immigrants to earn residency and, eventually, citizenship by passing background checks, proving employment and paying fines. The most controversial component of the bill is its "touchback" requirement, which demands illegal immigrants return to their home countries and wait for legal residency applications to be processed. Many Latino groups say the wait could be too long and the fines too steep, but Gonzales deems it an acceptable compromise.

Gonzales and other local pastors began organizing last spring amid nationwide protests against a House bill that would have made felons of illegal immigrants and people who helped them. Over the past year they've mounted letter-writing campaigns, reached out for support from non-Hispanic congregations such as Joel Osteen's in Houston and made trips to the capital to lobby senators, representatives and White House staff.

The movement cites theological principles and biblical exhortations to show compassion to "the stranger among us," from Genesis and Deuteronomy, as well as calls to oppose "unjust laws that oppress the vulnerable," from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Acts and Romans. Christian conservatives opposed to the legalization of immigrants who entered the country illegally counter that Scripture also demands respect for the law. Gonzales and his fellow pastors are meeting this challenge head-on by reaching out to such groups, including anti-abortion organizations. "They're some of the strongest evangelical organizations with a lot of clout who haven't come out supporting comprehensive immigration reform," Gonzales says. "We're hoping to be able to change some mindsets, to bring clarity and help them see it from a different point of view, not just the rule of law. We're not going to separate ourselves from either side—compassion, or the rule of law."

Dr. Ralph Holland, pastor of Mundo de Fe, Covenant Church's Hispanic ministry and one of the largest in Dallas with around 2,000 members, has held prayer meetings with the intention of helping the president and Congress come up with a solution for the immigration problem. While Holland says he doesn't want to be directly involved politically, he holds the U.S. government responsible for failing to enforce the law and supports some sort of overhaul. "I teach that we're to obey the laws of the land, but some people found themselves in a difficult situation because our laws were not being enforced and so consequently, they're here," he says, adding that mass deportation would be a crisis because immigrants' home countries couldn't re-absorb them and "we need them."

The steady conversion of Hispanics to Pentecostalism throughout Latin America and in the United States may account for the recent evangelical push for immigration reform. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 43 percent of evangelical Hispanics say they used to be Catholic, and 29 percent of Hispanics who attend church services say they speak in tongues, a practice identified with Pentecostals but not all evangelical churches. Just 11 percent of non-Hispanics said they speak in tongues.

Holland rejected suggestions that recent advocacy on the part of evangelicals can be directly tied to the growth of Hispanics in Pentecostal churches, and Gonzales stresses that it's not just Hispanics who are pushing for a more just immigration system. He says the coalition has received support from black Christian leaders such as Harry Jackson, senior pastor of a 3,000-member church in Maryland, as well as Anglo Christians such as Osteen and Land. "We have to educate our Anglo and African-American brothers and sisters that we're not looking for amnesty, we're looking for a process," Gonzales says. "If it doesn't happen by August it will be an issue for the next president. Our country can't afford that."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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