By Kate Nocera
Evangelical leaders have swarmed Capitol Hill this year with phone calls and visits pushing comprehensive immigration reform. One evangelical group has even started airing TV ads on the issue.
The target is opponents of reform, primarily congressional Republicans, and conservative lawmakers say the outreach is having an impact.
A coalition of groups and pastors called the Evangelical Immigration Table is running ads in support of Sen. Lindsey Graham for his work on an immigration bill, which could be valuable to the South Carolina Republican as he runs for reelection next year.
"I come from a district -- and from my own personal beliefs -- where it matters to me what folks in the faith community think, and they are weighing in more than they did five years ago; I see it especially with Sen. Graham," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
"There are groups running ads against Sen. Graham, so it's nice there are some ads running to counter that," Gowdy said.
Several conservative congressmen said they started noticing the evangelical efforts over a year ago, but as momentum in the House and Senate has picked up, the evangelicals have gone into overdrive. Groups and pastors are working in lawmakers' districts, mobilizing churchgoers and encouraging politicians to meet with undocumented immigrants who are church members.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), himself a Christian, said that the goals of lawmakers and evangelical Christians are similar. They both wanted to find policies that would "make right" undocumented immigrants who have broken the law and find a way to normalize them into society.
"Quite frankly, from an evangelical perspective, reconciliation is a big deal," Lankford said. "That is the core message of God reconciling us to himself, and we have a message of reconciliation to the world. [Immigrants] want the opportunity to be made right."
Lankford says the outreach helps put a face to the problem.
"It doesn't give politicians cover; it gives them relationships," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity for an evangelical group to come to a conservative lawmaker and say, "Let me introduce you to somebody undocumented who you may not know attends your church or a church like yours that we want you to meet."
A key Republican congressman working on immigration, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, said the evangelical outreach serves a purpose.
"I don't know that it moves the needle, but it reminds people that there's a human component; it reminds people about what the right thing to do is," said Labrador. "Because that's why I want to do immigration reform, because it's the right policy. I have never believed that it's good politics for the Republican Party; in fact, I don't think we are going to get any credit, but I'm OK with that because it's the right policy."
The Evangelical Immigration Table has planned a day of prayer on the Hill in April as the debate heats up. It's expected that House and Senate groups will introduce legislation sometime in April following the Easter recess.
"We've had dozens of meetings in the last few weeks and have more scheduled every day," said Galen Carey, vice president at the National Association of Evangelicals. "We've met with people who are strong supporters, people who are unsure to give them more information, and for some who are not yet supporters, we are helping them think through the issues."
The Evangelical Immigration Table this week said that a comprehensive package must include a path to earned citizenship for the country's undocumented immigrants, and are using their faith to make that argument to lawmakers. Some in the GOP have suggested that immigrants could earn a permanent legal status but stop short of supporting a path to full citizenship.
"We don't believe there are second-class images of God, so we don't believe there should be a second class for people who follow an earned path," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a faith group pushing for immigration reform.
"There really is a sea change in the evangelical world on immigration reform," he added.
Carey said that the groups that make up the Evangelical Immigration Table don't have the money to run ads in every district or state of lawmakers who support immigration reform. But he does think the power of the pulpit and constituents will be able to provide lawmakers with a different kind of support.
"We represent constituents in every state and congressional district who are concerned about this issue, and when politicians are willing to show courage, then yes, we want to work with them to help them hear from their constituents that they are doing the right thing," he said.
Dr. Richard Land, an Immigration Table member and president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has been pushing for immigration reform for about six years.
He said his call for reform was now falling on "more receptive ears."
The tone of the debate has changed, as well, he said.
"We're not talking about amnesty; we're talking about restitution," he said. "We're more mobilized; there's more consensus; and I think our message is resonating very well with members of Congress."