Undocumented in Moore: Why Evangelicals Want Immigration Reform

Isaías Vargas pastors Ciudad de Dios, a Latino evangelical church just a mile from Plaza Towers Elementary, the Oklahoma school that was flattened in last week’s devastating tornado...

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Charlie Riedel / AP

Residents cleaning up their their tornado-ravaged home take a break to share a prayer with a roving chaplain Thursday, May 23, 2013, in Moore, Okla.

Pastor Isaías Vargas leads a Latino evangelical church just a mile from Plaza Towers Elementary, the Oklahoma school that was flattened in last week’s devastating tornado. When the storm hit, Vargas immediately knew his church, Ciudad de Dios, would become a center point for Latino relief efforts. Soon he learned that nineteen Latino families in the church’s neighborhood suffered total or near total loss. But there was a catch: At least thirteen of the families were undocumented immigrants.

Thirteen families may not seem like much, but it is a lot for a small church of only 50 to 75 people, especially given the enormity of their need. The basic needs of these families are the same as their documented neighbors—water, food, transportation, clothes—but their resources are far more limited. You need a social security number to get FEMA assistance. Applications demand your address, contact numbers and insurance information. In other words, going to FEMA means telling the government you are in the country illegally, and that’s a risk many families are not willing to take.

Fortunately, the broader Latino evangelical community quickly stepped in to offer aid. Felix Cabrera, a pastor at nearby Iglesia Bautista de Quail Springs, Quail Springs Baptist Church, contacted Vargas within hours to offer his church’s help. Cabrera’s congregation is not much larger, but an affiliated non-hispanic church immediately jumped in as well, as did Capitol Hill Baptist Church. “It is a blessing when you see the Anglo church helping the Hispanic ministries,” says Cabrera. “They help us with more than we expected.”

The National Latino Evangelical Coalition also organized a substantial relief effort. NALEC president Gabriel Salguero learned the importance of a specific Latino church relief program after Superstorm Sandy, when the group raised $5 million and worked with FEMA officials to meet the specific needs of undocumented victims. When the tornado hit Moore last week, one of Salguero’s first calls was to Cabrera. Within hours a plan was in place: NALEC would send a team to train Cabrera and other local pastors in disaster relief. Volunteers came from New York, Orlando, and Laredo, Tex., and NALEC began offering technical and administrative support as well as material supplies. Their network of churches across the country provided a natural and speedy donor base. “In our Oklahoma disaster relief efforts we saw first hand how a lack of immigration reform can leave so many with little or no humane recourse,” Salguero says. “As a nation, we can and must do better.”

This story of these thirteen families is yet another reason why evangelical leaders across America continue to fight for immigration reform. Increasingly, immigrant families, documented and undocumented, are in their pews.

Today the Evangelical Immigration Table, a broad coalition of conservative and progressive evangelical leaders and organizations, launched a $250,000 national ad campaign to mobilize constituents for immigration reform. The campaign targets 13 key states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Ohio. The group also is displaying “Pray for Reform” billboards near congressional offices in Florida, North and South Carolina, and Texas.

Salguero led the call with evangelical leaders including Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, and Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church. All argued that immigration reform is a moral issue that cannot be ignored. “Our broken system has been a moral stain for too long and the time is right for our country to have an immigration system that respects the God given dignity of every human,” Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and coalition member group, tells TIME.

Their reasons are not just practical. They are theological. Embracing people in need—including the undocumented in America—is core to the gospel message of caring for one’s neighbor, they believe. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, naked and you clothed me,” Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew. “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”