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.