Evangelicals Become Unlikely Supporters Of Immigration Reform

Long tied to the conservative, anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party, a number of evangelical leaders are now coming out in favor of the immigration overhaul released by a bipartisan group of senators.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And there was a big moment in the United States Senate today. It was barely morning, the wee hours, around 2:00 a.m. An immigration reform bill was filed, more than 800 pages of legislation. It would tighten security along the borders, expand worker visas and offer a 13-year path to citizenship to people who live in this country illegally.

We're going to hear now about those who support it and those who do not. As NPR's David Welna reports, once the sun was up today, a chorus of support resounded on Capitol Hill from Christian evangelicals.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: They gathered at a church just steps from the U.S. capitol, hundreds of people from all over the country.

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WELNA: It was the kickoff of a lobbying push by a coalition of evangelicals from more than two dozen denominations. At an outdoor news conference, Jenny Yang of the evangelical charity group World Relief called this an evangelical day of prayer and action on immigration reform.

JENNY YANG: We have almost 300 people and we actually have participants from over 20 states and we'll be having over 60 meetings on both the Senate and the House side today.

WELNA: Among those taking it to the lawmakers was David Uth. He's the senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida. He said 32 languages were spoken by members of his congregation of 16,000 and he wanted to tell their stories to members of Congress.

DAVID UTH: I can tell you there's one reason we're in Washington. And it's not because they don't know where our steeples are. They know where the steeples are. They don't know where our heart is. And we're here today to answer that question, yes, we do care and we ask that something be done.

WELNA: Not all evangelicals are on board with their leaders. A Pew poll found last month that white evangelicals were the religious group least likely to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, with slightly more than half endorsing such a path. Barbara Williams-Skinner, who co-chairs the National African-American Clergy Network, said black Americans had also long been wary of immigrants who might compete for jobs.

BARBARA WILLIAMS-SKINNER: We have taken a long way through the educational process to bring us to the day where we are today, where we can say we are in solidarity. But it's taken a while.

WELNA: Still, Carlos Moran of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference warned that a tough path could still lie ahead in the struggle over immigration.

CARLOS MORAN: We cannot be naive. There are giants in the land of promise, the giants of extremism, rhetoric pornography and division.

WELNA: But with an estimated 9 million Latinos among the nation's evangelicals, church leaders have refrained from criticizing a path to citizenship. Gabriel Salguero, who heads the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said he was confident he and others could change the minds of lawmakers who oppose that proposal.

GABRIEL SALGUERO: We're pastors. We're in the business of proclaiming and persuading. We're anxious to meet them and hear what they're opposition is and why.

WELNA: And Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention declared the path to citizenship is anything but amnesty.

RICHARD LAND: It provides an earned pathway to full legal status and then to citizenship for those who want it. That is not amnesty in any dictionary in the English language. And I would say to those opponents of this legislation that to continue to call it amnesty, they need a course in remedial English themselves.

WELNA: The people, Land added, are ahead of their elected representatives. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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