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Evangelicals are key to immigration reform laws

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Mark Bailey leads Dallas Theological Seminary, an evangelical school known for conservative beliefs on issues like interpreting Scripture and the Second Coming. Bailey also is part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a collection of evangelical pastors, academics and lay leaders who want Congress to broadly overhaul immigration laws.

This group is a critical and ironic wild card in the debate: Evangelicals hold the key to recreating our immigration system.

Leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table met Wednesday in Washington to pray and advocate for comprehensive reform of immigration laws. “Comprehensive” includes providing an opportunity for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship or a legal status.

Bailey told me over the phone last week why he has come to this point. “As a church,” the seminary president said, “we are called to treat all people as God’s creation. Our care for individuals is a constant regardless of a person’s legal status.”

Bailey emphasized he and other evangelicals respect the rule of law. That is one of the six principles guiding the Evangelical Immigration Table. Others include securing the national border, respecting the God-given dignity of every person and allowing illegal immigrants to work for citizenship or legal status.

The role that evangelicals like Bailey are playing is significant since evangelicals generally line up with Republican politics. They have a standing with GOP legislators that more liberal church groups do not. Many evangelicals are part of the Republican constituency.

They also are mobilized in a way they weren’t when Washington last took up immigration reform under former President George W. Bush. Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, describes their role this way in an email: “Evangelicals are for real. They are committed, aggressive and growing in number.”

The group Bailey belongs to includes liberal evangelicals like the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, moderate evangelicals like the Rev. Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals and conservative evangelicals like Jim Daly of Focus on the Family. They are united behind their principles. And the organization is working for change on Capitol Hill, where members will meet with top House leaders along with praying for reform.

The House, of course, will be a difficult place to market wholesale change of immigration policies. The Senate passed a reform package that includes a chance for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship over time. That provision is like waving a red flag in front of some House members.

If anyone could change their opposition, church leaders, specifically evangelical ones, could. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham already has complimented evangelicals for giving him the support he needed to survive the Senate’s hotly debated immigration bill. Graham was one of the few Republicans who fought hard for that legislation.

But now that the action is moving to the House, evangelical leaders must risk playing hardball to get the House to pass a landmark law. “If Christian people of faith are going to be taken seriously, then we will have to follow the leadership of Jesus. To be specific, we will have to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.’ When it comes to the political hardball associated with the need for immigration reform, this is serpent time,” William Lawrence, dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog.

Of course, it’s ironic that Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are relying upon so many evangelicals for help. Michael Wear described this interesting twist last week in The Atlantic. “On immigration,” he explained, “progressives and Democratic strategists embrace, to a striking degree, the central role evangelicals will have to play in any successful attempt at reform.”

Evangelicals are central because immigration reform is a moral issue to them. This is about welcoming the stranger amidst us, more than any policy details, such as how many more agents are needed along the border. “Christ clearly has something to say about how we treat the poor, the voiceless, and the displaced – and often immigrants fall into each of these categories,” Bailey wrote in his seminary’s magazine.

May they keep our eyes on the moral parameters of this debate. That could finally push Congress to a more humane set of immigration laws.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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