Democrats Look to Conservative Evangelicals on Immigration

On a teleconference last month with a loose coalition of white and Latino evangelical leaders, Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who had recently unveiled a legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, pleaded with participants to bring Republican senators to the table to hammer out a bipartisan package.

“You can play a vital role,” said Schumer. “You have great links to many of our Republican senators, they have great respect for you… Please, if you could help us get some Republicans to just sit in a room and talk with us, we could get a bill done this year.”

What wasn’t discussed on the call with Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform was that Schumer had gained the support of conservative evangelicals in part by telling them that the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)—which would close a loophole that currently prevents US citizens in same-sex, committed relationships from sponsoring their undocumented partners for citizenship—would not be part of the comprehensive package, as he had originally proposed.

Supporters of the UAFA said that Schumer had already committed to include the UAFA—leaving the senator looking like he was talking out of both sides of his mouth.

According to Immigration Equality, an advocacy group that supports the UAFA, there are 36,000 bi-national couples in the United States—same-sex couples in which one is a US citizen and the other faces possible deportation if a partner or spouse cannot sponsor them for citizenship—and about half of those couples have children. In other words, while heterosexuals currently can sponsor their undocumented spouses for citizenship, thousands of gay and lesbian couples face the possibility of their families being separated unless the UAFA becomes law.

That Schumer had to plead with anti-LGBT rights conservatives to even bring Republicans to the table points not only to the dysfunction of the Senate (where the majority party needs a supermajority to get anything done), but also to the dysfunctional way Democrats view faith-based advocacy: instead of capitalizing on the progressive stance of religious activists on issues relating to sex and sexuality, they feel they must capitulate to conservative activists as the definitive position of “people of faith.”

Democrats appear to be looking to both the conservative evangelical leadership and the Catholic hierarchy—groups with significant lobbying presences in Washington—for support on immigration reform. While both groups say they want to see a comprehensive package passed, they will not support one that includes UAFA. But many “people of faith,” including mainline Protestants, Jews, and Catholics challenging Vatican teaching support a package including UAFA.

The denominations and religious groups supporting UAFA include African American Ministers in Action (a project of People for the American Way); Call to Action; Catholics for Equality; Church World Service, Immigration and Refugee Program; Clergy United; The Episcopal Church; Friends Committee on National Legislation; Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Standing on the Side of Love; the United Methodist Church; and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Even more religious leaders and groups have expressed support for broad LGBT equality, as evidenced by the more than 3,000 endorsers of the Religious Institute’s Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who is a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, last month declared the UAFA to be an essential part of a reform package and committed himself, along with Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Jared Polis (D-CO), “to bringing the immigration reform movement together with the coalition supporting UAFA to fight for inclusion of same-sex families.”

The UAFA alone, said Gutirerrez, “can’t fix what is wrong about our current immigration mess. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform is necessary, but not sufficient to fix what is wrong with our immigration system if some same-sex couples and families are still left out.”

Erwin de Leon, whose husband, the Rev. John Beddingfield, Rector of All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington DC, is in the United States on a student visa, which will expire when he completes his doctorate. Although the couple got married in April after DC made gay marriage legal, de Leon, a Philippine national, cannot obtain a green card through Beddingfield as a heterosexual spouse could.

De Leon lamented how the anti-UAFA religious voices are more frequently heard in Congress. “I’m a strong believer in the separation of church and state—what you do is fine if you believe same-sex couples shouldn’t be married in your churches, good for you. But any religion,” he added, “shouldn’t impose their dogmas on society, and I think that’s what’s happening here.”

Yet conservative religious groups’ dominance in beltway lobbying is reinforced even by progressive advocates. At a recent media briefing hosted by the American Immigration Council, Angela Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, described the National Association of Evangelicals and its Latino affiliate, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, as “two of the most powerful voices” from the faith community on immigration reform. Mary Giovagnoli, Director of the Immigration Policy Center, who at one time worked for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, recalled him urging colleagues to speak to the lobbyists for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when they visited the Hill. Kelley added, “where the bishops engage on a very personal level, it makes a huge difference.”

Those powerful groups—the NAE, the NHCLC, and the USCCB—all oppose the UAFA. The USCCB, reacting to Schumer’s April proposal, took the position that it was an “important first step,” but that there were “flaws in the framework that require revision, including a controversial provision that would permit same-sex couples to receive immigration benefits equal to married couples.”

Like the Catholic bishops, the NAE has also made clear that it would not support the Democratic package if it included UAFA. And the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the NHCLC, was part of a group of evangelicals that included Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and The Call to Conscience’s Lou Engle, who a few weeks after the conference call with Schumer threatened to withhold support if the UAFA was included in a package, claiming that the Democrats were “pandering to special interests.”

But looking solely to the powerful lobbies of the evangelical leadership and Catholic hierarchy as a barometer of “people of faith” is misleading. That evangelical groups and the Catholic bishops might hold up immigration reform over the UAFA “angers me,” said the Rev. Kevin Goodman, Associate Dean of the Saint James Cathedral in Chicago. Goodman is an Episcopal priest whose partner of 11 years is an undocumented immigrant who faces possible deportation if the UAFA isn’t passed. “Immigration reform is a matter of justice and that we’re willing to sacrifice justice because we disapprove or we don’t see how God works in the lives of people we don’t understand goes against everything Scripture teaches us,” Goodman said.

Although Protestant support from the UAFA comes from mainline denominations rather than evangelicals, Catholics opposing the bishops’ position are beginning to take a more public stand. “It is certainly evident from Immigration Equality’s case load, and the families we work with, however, that the Catholic people, and many Catholic leaders at the local level, embrace far different—and more compassionate—views on this issue than the Conference of Catholic Bishops,” said Steve Ralls, the group’s communications director.

Fr. Joseph Palacios, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, is working to launch the group Catholics for Equality next month, which will support the UAFA. “Catholics as a religious body are the most progressive in terms of LGBT issues and we want to be the contrary voice to the official church and to help these Catholics see their social justice tradition and family life as [being] as important as anything coming from the bishops,” said Palacios. Noting that Catholics have experienced religious discrimination, he added, “we should be the group that thinks through aligning ourselves with [the] marginal and alienated and to see how Jesus would approach people themselves.”

Some Catholic bi-national couples do receive support from their parishes. Shirley Constantino Tan lives in Pacifica, California, with her partner Jaylynn Mercado, who is a US citizen, and their two teenage sons, both US citizens. Tan fled her native Philippines in 1991, seeking political asylum after her family was victimized by violence stemming from a family dispute over an inheritance; a cousin murdered her sister and mother and shot Tan in the head. Tan and Mercado have been together for 24 years and, she said, welcomed in their Catholic Church where they are active members. “We didn’t feel any kind of rejection in our parish community,” said Tan.

After Tan exhausted her asylum appeals and was facing possible deportation last year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced, and succeeded in passing, a private relief bill on her behalf; it would have to be renewed each year if Tan is to avoid deportation. In support of the bill, her priest, Fr. Piers M. Lahey of the Church of the Good Shepherd, wrote a letter to Feinstein which was entered into the Congressional Record. Lahey described Tan and Mercado as “wonderful Christian partners, parents, role models for their two boys, and, as Scripture says, ‘living stones’ helping to form and build up the Church, the Body of Christ, in today’s broken and violent world.”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, the national coordinator for the National Coalition of American Nuns, said of the bishops’ opposition to the UAFA, “I find their arguments specious and I think their stand, personally I find it scandalous.” Gramick, who has ministered to gays and lesbians since 1971, was investigated by the Vatican in the 1990s and ordered to stop ministering to gay and lesbian people. She ignored it.

“I am proud to be a Catholic,” Gramick said. “I’m a lifelong Catholic. I spend my life hopefully working for justice so that people can look and see there are Catholic people who at least try to be just and try to follow the Gospel. But frankly the US bishops continually embarrass me. They are an embarrassment to the Catholic Church at this point, particularly with the stand they are taking.”

Palacios said Catholics for Equality will fill a void: there is no group doing political work reaching out to Catholics who support LGBT rights. “We’re not interested in reforming the church, we’re interested simply in getting fair-minded Catholics, move them in the direction in of LGBT rights,” he said.

Palacios noted the fear among Catholic clergy of crossing the hierarchy on LGBT rights, adding he knew a priest in California who publicly opposed Proposition 8 and was removed from his post by his bishop.

“There are priests supportive of gay rights, and there are gay priests,” Palacios added, “they’re completely afraid to speak up.” He added that the pressure has worsened under Pope Benedict, who has made LGBT rights a “litmus test.” The bishops, he said, have been “given marching orders that this is your job: combat gay rights and combat ‘cultural relativism.’”

But one of the lessons of health care reform might be that Catholic legislators are beginning to see that the bishops do not represent all Catholics (much less all Americans). The bishops, after lobbying for the Stupak amendment, objected to what they believed was a less stringent abortion restriction in the health care bill. The bill nonetheless passed, after organizations of nuns endorsed it. The emergence of organized religious support for UAFA could help provide similar cover to skittish legislators by demonstrating, at the very least, that religious sentiment is mixed, and at best, showing wider religious support for UAFA than lawmakers would have understood from listening only to the conservative leadership.

Gramick called health care reform “a great turning point. Politically the bishops were embarrassed because Catholics in the pews are making their voices known, the sisters are articulating that, and the Catholic legislators are waking up and realizing that fact.”

Palacios also noted that legislators were “were pissed at the bishops for intervening too heavily on the health care bill” and are beginning to be receptive to the views of Catholics outside the hierarchy. 

Speaking of the bishops, Tan said, “I hope they will open up their eyes. There should be change now and equality for everybody. That’s discrimination on their part. I hope they will realize that love knows no boundaries.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email