Evangelicals split over immigration bill

Evangelicals from Georgia and across the nation are clashing over the sweeping immigration bill now pending in Congress, revealing deep divisions among them on the hot-button issue as the Senate legislation moves to the House.

The two sides — who help form a key part of the Republican conservative base — differ in their interpretations of the Bible and are relying on church sermons, prayers and letter-writing campaigns to make their cases.

One group calling itself the Evangelical Immigration Table has endorsed Senate Bill 744, legislation that would create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Several Georgia church leaders — including two former presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention — have signed this group’s statement of principles, which also calls for respecting the rule of law and securing the nation’s borders.

Meanwhile, another movement — Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration — has issued an open letter calling on Congress to scrap the legislation and start over, saying it is “flawed to the point of being unworkable.” The letter criticizes the Evangelical Immigration Table’s links to billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a major backer of liberal causes.

Clergy from both groups have been pressuring congressmen over the immigration legislation in recent weeks. The Senate approved the measure Thursday by a 68-32 vote, and it is now pending in the House. But House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that his chamber won’t take up the comprehensive bill. The Republican-led House has so far opted to consider smaller individual bills for overhauling the immigration system.

To support a bipartisan immigration overhaul, the Evangelical Immigration Table has held prayer gatherings near the U.S. Capitol and in many states and announced a $250,000 media ad campaign last month. One of the radio ads features Cynthia Hale, the senior pastor at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur. In May, the group sent a letter to Congress endorsing the Senate legislation as a “good faith, bipartisan effort that largely upholds our principles.”

At the same time, some Baptist leaders in the South who dismiss the bill as “amnesty” for lawbreakers have been calling and writing their congressmen, urging them to vote no.

Evangelicals are nearly evenly divided on the issue, according to a telephone poll of 4,465 adults conducted this year by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. The survey shows 56 percent of white evangelical Protestants support giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

That is the lowest support among religious groups that were surveyed. In contrast, 74 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 70 percent of black Protestants are in support. Of the evangelicals who identify with the tea party, only 41 percent support it.

The debate recently turned nasty among evangelicals, illustrating deep divisions on the issue. This month, Kelly Monroe Kullberg, an author and co-founder of Christians for a Sustainable Economy, wrote an open letter to Congress that criticizes the Senate legislation and accuses Soros of being behind the Evangelical Immigration Table. Kullberg said 765 people — including pastors, authors and others — had signed her letter as of Wednesday.

Soros’ Open Society Foundations has provided substantial funding to the National Immigration Forum, which is handling logistical support for the Evangelical Immigration Table. But the head of the forum said only a small fraction of its funding comes from Soros’ group and that no Soros money has gone to the Evangelical Immigration Table. The Open Society Foundations said it has not funded the Evangelical Immigration Table.

Christians on both sides of the debate cite Scripture in their arguments. Some compare Abraham, Jesus and the Israelites to immigrants. And they point to many Bible passages that talk about loving, clothing and feeding aliens, sojourners and strangers, which they interpret to mean immigrants.

Others dispute the idea that the Bible is referring to immigrants and point to other passages that underscore upholding the rule of law.

Bryant Wright, the senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in east Cobb County, is among more than 170 evangelical leaders — including pastors and university and seminary presidents — who have signed the Evangelical Immigration Table’s statement of principles.

In February, Wright sent a copy of a 2011 Southern Baptist Convention resolution to Georgia’s U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. The resolution calls for securing the nation’s borders and creating “a just and compassionate path to legal status” for illegal immigrants. Wright has also preached to his large congregation about being compassionate toward immigrants.

“In the world we live in with 10 (million) to 12 million illegal immigrants, it is just not realistic to send those people back,” he said. “On top of that, many of them now have children who were born in the United States.

“We have got to address this problem, obviously. And I think it is going to be better for society as a whole when we do have a more fair and compassionate approach to dealing with this problem of illegal immigrants.”

John Killian, the president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, opposes the Senate legislation, particularly the provision that would grant a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He wrote Alabama’s two U.S. senators about fighting the bill and signed Kullberg’s open letter to Congress.

“We just can’t logistically, economically take in the population of the world that wants to come in,” said Killian, the pastor of Maytown Baptist Church outside of Birmingham. “It is just an unsustainable thing to have this burst of population.”

Killian also disagrees with how other evangelicals are interpreting the Bible.

“I don’t think the Old Testament word for stranger in King James is making reference to giving full citizenship to somebody who comes in,” he said. “Our churches ought to love people, support people, encourage people — minister. But I think the law needs to stand for the integrity of our border.”

Both Isakson and Chambliss — who voted against the bill Thursday — acknowledged the pressure the Senate has received from evangelicals.

“I have heard from many Georgians during the immigration debate, including those in the evangelical community,” Chambliss said through a spokeswoman. “I am very sensitive to their position, but at the end of the day we have to have a bill that is fair and comprehensive.”

Isakson said in a prepared statement that his top priority is to “ensure that our borders are truly secured.”

“I have heard from many, many Georgians, including Evangelical groups, on this very important issue,” he said, “and I appreciate their passion and interest.”

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