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Demographic Shifts, Biblical Ideals Contribute to Evangelical Immigration Stance

May 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While lawmakers in Washington continue work on overhauling American immigration policy, Ray Suarez reports from Colorado, where members of the Evangelical Christian community are advocating passage of immigration reform to respond to demographic shifts in membership.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we continue our examination of immigration reform, as lawmakers consider legislation to overhaul the system in Washington.

Ray Suarez has our report from Colorado, exploring how the evangelical community is advocating for changing how the country handles undocumented immigrants.

RAY SUAREZ: It looks like a typical evangelical church service, with modern songs of worship, guitars strumming, arms raised in praise. But listen closely. The words are sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish.

This is Immanuel Fellowship Church in Frisco, Colo. Frisco is a mountain resort town. The Latino population has zoomed, up 70 percent over the last 10 years, as immigrants come, looking for service industry jobs.

MAN: Go down to verse eight.

RAY SUAREZ: The demographic shift is reflected in the pews at Immanuel, now half Anglo, half Hispanic. Latinos are moving steadily from their centuries-long home in the Catholic Church toward evangelical congregations like this one. All across the U.S., that shift is transforming what had always been white, English-speaking congregations.

Erick Luna was raised Catholic in El Salvador. He is now a minister of music at Immanuel.

ERICK LUNA, Immanuel Fellowship Church: It’s really beautiful when it’s like a marriage, when two completely different people come together and start a family. And even with our differences, when we come together to glorify our God, it’s something beautiful.

RAY SUAREZ: That marriage of two cultures has at the same time prompted congregations to rethink political questions. Many evangelical congregations are putting new emphasis on biblical commands to welcome the stranger, and how they may reframe the hot debate over immigration reform.

Pastor Mike Phillips says he normally doesn’t get involved in political issues, but, for him, immigration is a moral issue.

PASTOR MIKE PHILLIPS, Immanuel Fellowship Church: I think the church has always appreciated, yes, we need to be a champion for the orphan, for the widow. But people are surprised when it says in the same passages the immigrant, too. And so that’s just, wow, we have a biblical responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: Phillips recently joined hundreds of other evangelical leaders on a trip to Washington to bring those concerns to members of Congress.

The group, called the Evangelical Immigration Table, was formed a year ago and includes leaders from across the political spectrum, from the left-leaning Sojourners to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

WOMAN: I was a stranger.

MAN: I was a stranger.

MAN: I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me.

MAN: I was sick. And you visited me.

MAN: I was in prison, and you came to me.

RAY SUAREZ: The organization launched a national video campaign, held workshops and seminars and is encouraging church members to engage on the issue.

Mark Weaver of Fort Collins, Colo., says Bible study has brought a radical change in his thinking; 10 years ago, he was a businessman lobbying for tougher sanctions against undocumented workers. Now he’s organizing immigrant worship services like this one. And he’s urging Congress to be more compassionate.

MARK WEAVER, Fort Collins, Colo.: There are people’s lives at stake, and there are people that are hurt by our immigration system. There are families that are broken up by our immigration system. There’s all kinds of stories out there and if you take time to listen to them, it’s really hard not to engage on a compassionate level.

And that’s where the moral part comes in. To me, this is a moral issue. And I do think that if you welcome the stranger and treat the stranger as you would treat Jesus, which was his point, that it throws the whole thing into a different light and it messes up your politics.

RAY SUAREZ: But there’s not some new universal agreement among Christians on immigration reform or a belief that the Bible can, or should, be used to justify one approach or another to policy-making.

Mark Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think tank.

MARK TOOLEY, Institute on Religion and Democracy: It’s very problematic when people of faith start to claim that the Bible gives them very direct guidance on a particular contemporary political issue, because the Bible primarily is not a political platform.

MAN: We need to have comprehensive immigration reform.

RAY SUAREZ: Tooley points out that evangelicals pushing for a more welcoming policy have gotten lots of media attention, but he’s not sure that translates into church member support.

MARK TOOLEY: I think, by and large, the advocacy for immigration legislation is coming from many of the elites of the evangelical movement, and as they themselves often acknowledge, one of their biggest obstacles is persuading their own constituency.

RAY SUAREZ: A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows a majority of evangelicals, 62 percent, think there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to be allowed to stay in this country. That number trails general public support, which stands at 71 percent.

PASTOR MIKE HARRISON, Bethany Evangelical Free Church: In Leviticus Chapter 19: “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.”

RAY SUAREZ: Pastor Mike Harrison takes a middle ground approach. As a pastor of a mostly white, Denver, suburban church, his own views have shifted after working and worshipping with a Latino congregation that uses his church.

MIKE HARRISON: The most significant part of that is the personal relationships that you develop, and you get to know people’s stories and you get to understand what it’s like being here and — here in America.

RAY SUAREZ: His colleague Pastor Francisco Mendez says, as those personal relationships develop, issues like legal status become less important.

PASTOR FRANCISCO MENDEZ, Vida Nueva Church: Every human being has the same value for us. And when I receive people from — I have the blessing of having people from different countries. And I don’t make any difference if they are undocumented or documented. For me, they are the same and they have the same value.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, Harrison says, the immigration reform issue is a complicated one and he doesn’t believe churches should advocate for specific legislation.

MIKE HARRISON: We really work hard within our church to depoliticize and not actually take those political, partisan view on these issues. It’s the citizen’s role to actively influence our political people.

So I would love for members of our church who care about this, I would love for them to contact their representatives. But I believe that is a job of the citizens of our nation, not necessarily of the churches of our nation.

RAY SUAREZ: That sentiment is not dissuading leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table. Earlier this month, the group launched a three-month prayer challenge for churches, urging passage of immigration reform.