Evangelicals Battle Over ‘Biblical’ Immigration

Though many evangelical leaders have come out in support of immigration reform, not all are on the same page about what that reform looks like

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Scott Applewhite / AP

A group of people from Arizona with undocumented parents gather peacefully to pray outside the office of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill.

One branch of the evangelical Christian community knows what it wants up next on America’s political agenda: comprehensive immigration reform. Another would prefer what it calls “Biblical immigration.” As Congress turns back to the business of governing ahead of the holidays, the two sides are ramping up their rhetoric–and their lobbying–with dueling interpretations of the gospels’ guidance.

For months, some Christian groups have prayed for immigration reform. For eight days in October, over 100,000 Christian backers of the Evangelical Immigration Table have asked God for guidance on the issue through “Pray4Reform” events. Next week, they plan to visit Washington and press Congressional leaders directly about the issue.

The millions of undocumented people that live in the U.S., the Evangelical Immigration Table says, should be treated with charity as the book of Matthew says Jesus was. Leaders cite the gospel passage that quotes Christ saying, “For 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.”

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“Evangelicals finally realize that how we treat the stranger, these 11 million undocumented people, is how we treat Christ himself,” said Jim Wallis, the president and founder of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization.

According to Wallis, and the leadership of the Evangelical Immigration Table, which includes the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention of the Southern Baptist Convention, the evangelical community has “never been more united on an issue.”

Yet, not everyone in the evangelical community agrees with Wallis. Others on the Christian right dissent, including one group of Christians who call themselves the Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration.

Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration argue that taking care of home should trump what they consider blind acceptance of foreigners. They have been openly critical of the Senate immigration bill that passed the upper chamber in late June. Kelly Kullberg, the leader of what she says is an “ad hoc movement of citizens” behind Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, says the Senate bill would grant blanket amnesty.

In June, referencing the Book of Timothy’s guidance on how to treat widows, Kullberg wrote in a letter to Congress that similar guidance should be adhered to when it comes to immigrants.

“While the Bible teaches us to be kind to the sojourner or ‘resident alien,’ it also teaches that kindness to the sojourner ought not to be injustice to local citizens and their unique culture,” Kullberg wrote. Over a thousand evangelical Christians signed the letter.

The Bible, the group says, gives more instructions when it comes to the acceptance of immigrants than just “be kind to strangers.”

“Like Ruth and Rahab, many are to be embraced,” Kullberg wrote. “We also find in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, men who were called to build walls in order to protect, to cultivate the good and to grow a healthy culture.”

In September, Kullberg, on behalf of the Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, sent another letter to members of the House of Representatives, calling for “biblical balance” when lawmakers consider immigration reform.

A biblical approach to reform, Kullberg says, would mean considering Americans first; securing the borders to keep out criminals, making sure unemployed Americans have access to job opportunities by mandating use of E-verify.

(MORE: Exclusive: RNC Ups Immigration Reform Pressure On Congressional GOP — But Rejects Path To Citizenship)

“There is no set view,” says Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute of Religion and Democracy and a signatory of the biblical reform letter. “There are tens of millions of evangelicals and Protestants. There is no consensus on this issue.”

Polling data is mixed on that score. On one hand, data from the right leaning “immigration reduction” organization, Numbers USA, suggests that 46% of Republican evangelicals say they would deport most undocumented immigrants. Another 32% say they would deport some, but “ensure no jobs or assistance for the rest.”

A Pew Research survey from March 2013 shows, on the other hand, that 62% of white evangelical Protestants say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally. Forty percent believe they should be able to apply for a path to citizenship, and 35% of those surveyed said those in the U.S. illegally should not be allowed to stay.

“There are people on both sides, Tooley said. “But the people who are speaking up are on the pro-side and those that are skeptical are not represented much at all.”

The skeptics, Galen Carey, the vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals says, don’t represent as many people within the evangelical community as more conservative groups are suggesting.

“We have a large number of people enrolled in the ‘Pray for Reform’ effort and it keeps growing,” Carey said.

Wallis says one reason for that is the church’s relationship with immigrants, many of whom are evangelicals themselves. “This is a personal issue,” Wallis said. “The undocumented are our brothers and sisters within the church.”

(MORE: The Rise of the Evangélicos)