June 11, 2010

Evangelical Group Pushes Harder for Immigration

“Today’s Tea Party may very well spell tomorrow’s conservative funeral, unless that tea is accompanied by something that enriches any meal. Chips and salsa.” With that, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez on June 9 concluded the most recent immigration reform advocacy meeting of the coalition between the National Association for Evangelicals (NAE) and Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

The line, which earned laughter and applause, is a common one for Rodriguez. Throughout the NAE’s push for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), he has sought to clarify the political stakes for Republicans. “Republicans [and] conservatives probably have the most to lose,” he said at Wednesday’s forum discussion. “The Grand Old Party stands on the brink of repeating history by completing a wall, not between Mexico and the United States but between Hispanic Americans and the conservative movement…The ‘family values party’ is alienating the most pro-life, pro-family constituency in America.” Rodriguez’s counsel to Republicans ended with a harsh rhetorical question: “So is this the party of Reagan and Lincoln, or the party of nativists and conservatives attempting to conserve a color rather than an idea?”

Democrats didn’t escape Rodriguez’s cavils, though he was considerably less critical. After pointing out that they were willing to push through the health care bill when the majority of the country opposed it, he said, “Democrats are willing to save the auto industry, the housing market, healthcare, and banks, but somehow could not find time or the political will to save children from being separated from their parents, securing our borders and integrating 12 million into the legal status that will reconcile our communities. So whatever happened to profiles in courage?”

Wednesday’s meeting, held in the Capitol Building, featured a discussion by a panel of influential evangelical leaders, including NAE President Leith Andersen, President-elect of Regent University Carlos Campo, and President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Richard Land. The gathering was meant to capture the momentum of the NAE’s recent actions, which involved placing a full-page advertisement in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. The ad characterized the present immigration situation as follows:

Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic, and political crisis in America.

Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each others’ positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportation of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate.

In light of NAE’s professed desire for bipartisanship and an end to false choices, a comment made by Pastor Rich Nathan seemed wholly out of place. After discussing a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, Nathan said, “A two to one majority across the religious spectrum supported comprehensive immigration reform. When comprehensive immigration reform was put up against its chief alternative, which was deportation or harsher measures of racial profiling, it outshined those measures 80 percent to 20 percent.” So, while the NAE feels that pitting “open borders and amnesty versus deportation of millions” is a false choice, a member of its pro-CIR coalition will happily employ it when advantageous.

Also participating in the discussion was Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law. Speaking about the kind of legislation that his coalition would support, Staver said he believes there is widespread support for securing the border. There is disagreement, though over how to deal with the undocumented immigrants presently in the country. The NAE/CCIR coalition supports a pathway to earned legal status and citizenship; for them, deportation is not an option. “If you just simply deport everybody, it’s not practical. Not only is it not practical, it’s not moral. And I don’t believe that it’s biblical either,” Staver said.

Over the past several months, the NAE’s advocacy for CIR has gained momentum and attention. As a result, increased attention has been paid to CCIR, the NAE’s coalition partner. In particular, the motivations of CCIR representative Robert Gittelson have been called into question. Gittelson is affiliated with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition, both of which are anything but mainstream organizations – certainly not conservative. In the past, Gittelson has referred to those who oppose CIR as “Restrictionists” and certain of his conservative opponents as “ultra right wing Republican cohorts.”  All of this led CIR critic Mark Krikorian to wonder, “This is who they picked to be the spokesman for ‘Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform’?”

With midterm elections fast approaching, it is unclear whether congressional Democrats will undertake immigration reform which could be long and difficult. But Rodriguez and the NAE/CCIR coalition show no sign of slowing down. Following Wednesday’s meeting, members of the panel met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), and White House Senior Advisor Valeria Jarrett. In the coming weeks the coalition will continue meeting with political leaders, seeking to persuade them that evangelicals support comprehensive immigration reform.

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