Evangelical Campaign for Immigration Reform Faces Key Obstacle: Grassroots

Today came the news that the National Association of Evangelicals is launching a new campaign in support of comprehensive immigration reform. It'll debut with a full-page ad in Roll Call on Thursday that will argue for including a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. Among the signatories are Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Mathew Staver of Liberty University School of Law, part of the institution founded by Jerry Falwell. According to CNN, the NAE will follow up by lobbying Republican leaders in Washington to negotiate with Democrats to pass a bill.

This is a notable development. When Congress last tackled immigration reform in 2007, the association wasn't on board. That contributed to the effort's demise, according to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents about 16 million Latino evangelicals. As he told me late that year, "If white evangelicals had supported immigration reform, that [bill] would have passed." He spent the next few years arguing passionately for his white brethren to join the cause. His and others' pleas, along with the fact that Hispanics are one of the fastest- growing segments of the evangelical community, eventually brought the NAE around. Last year the NAE passed a resolution making a biblical case for a humane overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

The problem, however, is that there's a disconnect between evangelical leaders and the grassroots. According to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll, white evangelicals have deeper misgivings about immigration than either white mainline Protestants or white Catholics. Sixty-three percent of the evangelicals said immigrants threaten "traditional American customs and values," compared with 51 percent of the Protestants and 48 percent of the Catholics. Moreover, 64 percent of the evangelicals said immigrants "are a burden because they take our jobs, housing, and health care," compared with 52 percent of the Protestants and 56 percent of the Catholics.

This is similar to the disconnect between Republican lawmakers and the party's base. In 2006, 23 GOP senators joined 38 Democrats in voting for an immigration bill that later died. When Congress tried again the following year, 12 GOP senators joined 33 Democrats in trying to break a filibuster and move to a final vote, but the effort failed. The number of GOP senators currently willing to work on immigration reform? Zero. At least part of the reason is to avoid inflaming the Republican base, of which grassroots evangelicals form a significant chunk.

All of which shows that the NAE has its work cut out for it. As Staver told CNN, "There's a misconception among people at the grassroots that the pathway to citizenship is amnesty, and it's not, but we have to overcome that . . . There's a lot of work to be done." Indeed.