Immigration Reform 2013: Will Evangelicals Save the GOP From Itself?


Each wave of nativist politics changes based on the immigrant groups being targeted and the state of the economy, but one thing stays in common: a fear of outsiders, a pervading sense of xenophobia that seems so strange in a country so diverse as ours. From regretful policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1897 to more triumphant ones, such as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, each wave has brought a new color and character to the immigration debate. The Republican right has begun to characterize the issue in the frame of religion, embracing the "welcome the stranger" call from the Bible. The Republican Party's evangelical Christian right, now more than ever, is pushing for reform on the basis of respecting "the God-given dignity of every person."

At present, the discussion seems to be centered on Latino-American voters and how important their perspective is on immigration reform. According to Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, Latinos are bound to be "social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious, and entrepreneurial," pointing to Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as a great example of representing Latino interests. At the same time, however, it is important to note that religious Latino Americans would like to differentiate themselves from their white American counterparts, by identifying not as evangelicals but as evangélicos. This movement has grown, especially with the gradual conversion of Latinos from Catholicism into evangelical Protestantism. Even more important, around 40% of the evangélicos are undocumented, making the intersection between immigration and religion more fraught and more interesting.

Thinking about the legality of undocumented immigrants in a religious context requires thinking about sin and human morality. Sin could potentially be thought of in two ways; individual and collective. An individual sin was committed on your own, while the collective sin could cause a social problem. This view was more common among those who believed in the "social gospel;" it received much criticism among mainstream white evangelicals for having socialist sentiments and ruling out individual sin. However, that view has been changing, as can be seen with the greater appreciation and respect for immigrants from evangelical conservatives.

Part of what has also made the evangelical base so integral to the Republican Party is its notions of libertarianism, possibly linked to the focus on the individual relationship with Jesus and God. It is also a possibility that this shift from individualized devotion to the injustices of society that result from collective sin is also generational; younger evangelicals might be "disillusioned" with the Christian right of their parents' time.

One thing is for sure: including international students and immigrants in discussions about immigration and political issues on college campuses allow white students to understand why people make the decisions that they do. According to Peter Cha, a theologian teaching "Compassion and Justice" at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, his Anglo evangelical students are "more and more willing to hear their brothers and sisters who come from other racial backgrounds — they learn why they choose to vote in certain ways," showing that open dialogue about immigration could lead to new understandings of political patterns.  

Despite the great evangelical support, it is significant to note that a great deal of the Republican party is still not in favor of immigration reform; a whopping 55% of the party believe that immigrants are a "burden because they take jobs, housing, and health care." However, the changing demographical makeup of the United States may affect the platform. The sheer numbers also tell a story of the importance of evangelical support for immigration reform: America's political future will depend more and more on Latinos and other minorities, in which case they will need to garner the support of Latino and other immigrant evangelists. Hopefully, they won't do it just for the votes; hopefully, there will be a sincere effort to include the immigrant voice in these religious — and political — debates.  

For a clearer understanding of Biblical references and their connection to immigration reform, view the following video. It is a part of the "I Was a Stranger" campaign, encouraging evangelical congregations nationwide to embrace immigration reform. If you are evangelical and would like to bring this to the attention of your congregation, be sure to share!