Reform Attracts Growing Religious Support - And Resistance

Many conservative Christian leaders have vehemently opposed Obama administration initiatives and denouncedthe administration as a threat to religious liberty and democracy itself. But when it comes tocomprehensive immigration reform, religious community supporthas expanded from traditional supporters like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and progressive religious organizations to include more conservative religious groups and evangelical leaders, such as the National Association of Evangelicals. Among the key players is Latino evangelical leader Sam Rodriguez, who joins Religious Right leaders in denouncing legal abortion and marriage equality, but who has pushed hard to challenge anti-immigrant sentiment among some conservative white evangelicals.

A few years ago, right-wing judicial activist Manuel Miranda tried gathering some Religious Right support for a proposal that would back a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as long as it was "balanced" with a constitutional change that would deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to non-citizen parents, so-called "anchor babies." Religious Right leaders Harry Jackson and Tony Perkins also call for a change in constitutional interpretation on citizenship in their 2008 book, which encourages churches to meet immigrants' immediate human needs but to then insist that immigrants get right with the law. Jackson recounts that a member of his church was denied a leadership position based on his unauthorized legal status.

The Miranda effort basically fizzled in the heat of GOP politicking during 2008, when we also saw Sen. John McCain abandon his previous support for comprehensive reform and embrace the "enforcement first" close-the-borders crowd. Richard Viguerie threatened at the time to work for thedefeat of any GOPer whodidn't take a hardline on "amnesty." Other intra-Right disputes during the 2008 election cycle included the endorsement of Mike Huckabee by Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, which infuriated other Minuteman-type activists who thought Huckabee was too soft on immigration. Huckabee himself moved to the Right during his presidential bid, signing a "no amnesty" pledge, though he has also been part of the recent efforts to find a role for conservative religious voices in the immigration debate that will meet the movement's long-term political goals.

The current embrace of comprehensive immigration reform by some evangelical leaders has run into resistance from anti-immigration zealots. NumbersUSA has said it has encouraged its evangelical members to "hammer" denominations that have embraced comprehensive reform. The Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian has denounced religious support as "cherry-picking Bible quotes to support the National Council of La Raza's policy positions" and promoted opposing religious voices. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum is dead-set against any reform that would allow unauthorized immigrants an opportunity to work toward citizenship. And many of the leading congressional hard-liners on immigration have close ties to Religious Right groups.

It is good news that National Association of Evangelicals and others are broadening religious community support for comprehensive immigration reform. But Religious Right leaders who want to back reform do so under the backdrop of a conservative political landscape where nativist groups have controlled the immigration narrative for years. Stay tuned.

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