Evangelicals Want Immigration Reform. Why Won’t Republicans Listen?

Lifeway Research, which conducts surveys on evangelical attitudes on a variety of issues, released a new poll today, finding that a majority of evangelicals want to see Congress pass immigration reform.

The survey, conducted on behalf of the Evangelical Immigration Table and World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, found that “more than two-thirds (68 percent) of evangelicals say it is important for Congress to take action on immigration reform this year. And half (50 percent) are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports border security and citizenship.”

The poll, which included non-white evangelicals, produced some stark contrasts, with 79 percent of Hispanic and 74 percent of African American evangelicals favoring a path to citizenship, and just 54 percent of white evangelicals supporting it. Still, it’s notable that a majority of white evangelicals favor a path to citizenship. The generational divides are also sharp, with 72 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 favoring inclusion of a path to citizenship in a reform package.

It’s always tricky to compare surveys that ask different questions, but other polls have found similar attitudes among white evangelicals, and suggest these evangelical views are consistent with the rest of the population. Public Religion Research Institute reported last month that roughly six in ten Americans “say the current immigration system should allow immigrants living in the country illegally a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.”

While PRRI results show white evangelical support for Congress passing a comprehensive package is the lowest among religious groups (compared to “78 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, 76 percent of minority Protestants, 73 percent of white mainline Protestants, 72 percent of Catholics”) it, too, found a majority of white evangelicals (64%) support passage of a comprehensive package.

According to the Lifeway poll, evangelical views of immigration remain conservative, with security trumping citizenship by a fairly wide margin: nearly 86 percent said that comprehensive immigration reform should “guarantee secure national borders”—much higher than the 58 percent that said a bill should include a path to citizenship.

Yet a majority still favor a path to citizenship (also known pejoratively as “amnesty” in conservative circles). Republican politicians routinely run away from being labeled supporters of amnesty. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who in 2013 sponsored a bill that included a path to citizenship, now he says he’s “learned” from that effort.

In 2013, the Evangelical Immigration Table strongly supported Rubio’s effort, bringing activists to Washington to lobby members of Congress and launching a “92 Days of Prayer and Action to Pass Immigration Reform.” At the time, PRRI found that a majority of white evangelicals supported an immigration package if it included compliance with legal requirements leading to a path to citizenship. That view was shared by Republicans broadly. As Republican pollster Whit Ayers told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent at the time, a third of Republicans support a path to citizenship, but that number jumps to two thirds if the conditions leading to citizenship “are strict and rigorous.”

When a comprehensive reform package was still being discussed in 2012 and 2013, evangelicals claimed there was a major obstacle to their support: the possible inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act, which would have provided for equal treatment of gay and lesbian couples in allowing an American citizen to sponsor his or her spouse to immigrate legally. Evangelicals who said they supported immigration reform threatened to withdraw that support if the UAFA was part of the bill. After the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, though, that became a moot point.

So if there’s no remaining poison pill for evangelicals, why don’t they, in alliance with other supporters of immigration reform, have more political clout on this issue? Despite the persistent evidence that a majority of one of the party’s largest and most reliable blocs—white evangelicals—support a path to citizenship, Republican opposition to immigration reform endures.

Something in the Lifeway report made me wonder whether evangelical supporters of immigration reform have taken the wrong approach. The strategy of the Evangelical Immigration Table has been to emphasize biblical imperatives. “At the heart of why evangelical Christians believe we should love, welcome, and seek justice for immigrants is our commitment to the authority of Scripture over every aspect of our lives,” states one of its documents. But the survey the Evangelical Immigration Table itself commissioned showed that evangelicals aren’t necessarily motivated by those biblical imperatives when it comes to immigration, with only 12 percent choosing the Bible as the factor that had most influenced their views on the issue.

The bigger influencers, it seems, are knowing immigrants (17 percent), followed by friends and family (16 percent). But even lesser influencers than the Bible were the positions of politicians, at just five percent, and of national Christian leaders at less than one percent.

Evangelical immigration advocates have tried to paint anti-reform Republicans as out of touch with the Bible. That sort of faith-based advocacy has been a staple of conservative evangelical activism on issues like abortion and LGBT rights, but hasn’t worked for immigration. That’s partly due to the divide among evangelicals on the issue, which makes it harder for one side to claim biblical authority for their position, and partly to the strength of the anti-immigrant elements on the right. But if Republicans eventually do cede to the obvious changes in demographics and voter attitudes, it probably won’t be for religious reasons.

  • Jim Reed

    Maybe they respond more to issues where they can express hate for their neighbor than they do to issues where they are supposed to love their neighbor. At least those issues are more likely to get them to the polls.

  • formericelaker

    Could be Republicans know that it’s the YOUNGER evangelicals who support immigration reform, but younger people are less likely to VOTE. The older evangelicals are the ones more likely to go to the polls — and kill — if Republicans implement immigration reform.

  • Its “Conservatives” that are the problem, whether Republican or Democrat or anything else for that matter. Though, I do agree that most Republicans could be labelled “conservative”, I find it best to leave naming which party they belong to out because most people already know conservatives today are Republicans, but also because most people dont realize the Democratic party is full of conservatives, not even recognized as “DINO”s by most.

  • George M Melby

    Conservatives on either side of the political divide depend a great deal on the hate factor to keep their trolls in line!

  • Husband of the Moonlight

    Living in Texas as I do, the reality was revealed to me long ago that those who complain (and often) about “immigration reform” are delusional at best; and blatant hypocrites at worst. There need be NO OTHER REFORMS to the “immigration problems” than to make it a “state felony to hire ANYONE WHO IS NOT A CITIZEN—OR DOES NOT POSSESS A ‘GREEN CARD’.
    The people who travel to the USA at great risk, leaving behind their culture and language base as well as their families; DO NOT DO SO UNLESS THEY ARE SURE THAT THEY WILL BE HIRED FOR JOBS THAT ACCORDING TO FOOLS LIKE GW BUSH (the former president who is a confessed war criminal) “Americans don’t want” . This is of course because those jobs do not pay a livable salary or have any benefits and are simply a “new slavery” that the Oligarchy supports with all of its corrupt abilities.
    When there are NO jobs to those who are not ‘legal immigrants’—those people will STOP RISKING EVERYTHING TO COME TO AMERICA AND BE EXPLOITED.
    It really is that simple.

  • Jim ‘Prup’ Benton

    Sarah, if this were unique in today’s politics, it might be more worth isolating and understanding. But because it has become merely one more example in a very disturbing pattern, perhaps we should look at the pattern rather than the instance.
    /
    The majority of Americans, of Republicans, of gun owners, even the majority of NRA members favor at least some form of sensible gun restrictions, in almost all areas of discussion, types of weapons, background checks, size of ammunition magazines, restrictions on both concealed and open carry, requirements for child-proof storage containers, etc. Republicans run in opposition to any of these, position themselves somewhere between Wayne LaPierre and Larry Pratt, and keep on winning primaries and elections.
    /
    Supporting SSM has long been at least a plurality position in the country as a whole, and has become the majority position, even among non-evangelical Republicans. The corporate backers of the Republicans have — in their own businesses — been not only LGBTQ-supportive, but have been well ahead of the Democratic party and the Obama Administration in offering equal benefits to married couples — though the latter have now caught up. When an organization like the National Organization for Marriage holds a “nationwide” rally in a city park — even in the Bible Belt — it is frequently outdrawn by a little league game on an adjoining field. Republicans run on rejecting court decisions, on supporting Constitutional Amendments against SSM, on threatening nullification or even secession if SSM is passed, and the Republicans keep on winning elections.
    /
    In fact, on almost every issue, the Democrats support, and the Republicans oppose, the side that is supported by the majority of Americans, the majority of voters, and frequently the majority of Republicans.
    /
    Go down the list:

    Raising the Minimum Wage
    Legalizing (at least)

  • Jim ‘Prup’ Benton

    I don’t know why my crazy computer froze, To continue:

    Legalizing (Medical at least) Marijuana
    Anti-bullying laws
    Raising Taxes on the rich
    Better schools
    Better roads
    A saner health care system (including almost every provision of the ACA individually and separately)
    An INCREASE in voting time and making it easier for voting
    Fighting terrorism, while avoiding ground wars
    Equal pay for women
    Doing something to slow Global Warming
    Cutting back the ‘Wall Street Casino’
    Reasonable health and safety regulations, at work and in the home
    and I could go on

    .
    In almost every case polls have shown these are the popular side of the issue (as well as being the right side morally and ethically). Most Republican candidates oppose all of these, and the minority of Republicans interested enough to vote in primaries frequently punish those who don’t.
    And Republicans have ties to not just ‘respectable’ hate groups like the AFA and FRC, but even in isolated but unpunished cases to groups that would once have been immediately toxic, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, David Duke. (And, while he would not be among the ;classics’ I would include Larry Pratt and the Gun Owners of America.) Once these would have gotten a Candidate disavowed and then defeated. Now a Duke disciple is the #3 man in the House.
    And Republicans keep on winning elections.
    I think, whether we are Democrats or what once would have been called ‘moderate Republicans,’ or independents — I doubt if the current group of conservative Republicans are listening or willing to tackle the question — though a good troll might try and change the subject — that trying to understand this pattern, why it happens, and how we can — as individuals — work to change it.
    I have a few answers, but I’ll hold them off and see what response — if any — this gets. (I also have things to do in the non-cyber world.) I may pop back later with some obvious wrong answers, if not, then to be continued tomorrow.

  • Jim Reed

    Why is this happening? This is tough because there are so many great choices to pick from.

    Many of the issues deal with helping the rich get richer. The rich have the mass media propaganda machines, so they have a lot of leverage over what we think. As they take a greater share of the wealth, the rest of us have to fight for the scraps that are left, and we can’t fight the rich so we fight each other. The rich also need to distract us from seeing we are fighting each other for scraps, so they encourage fights over social issues, LGBT, women’s health clinics, guns, outsiders. We fight over those things, then we don’t notice so much we are fighting each other for scraps, then nobody says anyting about the class warfare where we have been getting crushed by the rich for the last few decades. Now that the rich have us under control, they are off working on global interests.

    Or maybe it is the popularity of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

    Things might eventually change, and the rich know that. At the moment the world is set up as a pipeline for money to flow into their pockets, so they might as well continue to milk it as much as possible. Then when the system falls apart they will be super rich and won’t have to face the consequences like the rest of us.

  • Perhaps younger evangelicals have discovered that people from faraway places are human because of all those mission trips …

    Prup’s comment below is important.

  • EndTyrannyNow

    Yes! It seems so odd that one issue that unites the uber rich and those of the liberal mindset is “immigration reform”. Those of the former want to see their source of cheap (i.e. below market price) labor perpetuated. Those of the latter have been duped into thinking it’s the humanitarian thing to do. Evangelical believers should pay heed to Jesus’ warning to his disciples to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. I would argue that Wisdom says you cannot be fully as innocent and harmless as doves without being wise in the ways of this world.