The Evangelical Grassroots Mobilization for Immigration Reform

By: Don Golden and Jenny Yang

We find ourselves in the wake of an election in which both parties received a clarion call that immigration reform should be at the top the legislative agenda this year. According to polling after the elections, two of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States, Latinos and Asians, voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, at 71 percent and 73 percent respectively. Democrats are scrambling to continue to keep the support of this key voting bloc of minority voters, while the Republican party is positioning itself to be seen as a more diverse and inclusive party.

For years, many people have asked whether white evangelicals, a group that made up 25 percent of the voting bloc and voted overwhelmingly for the Republican party in the recent presidential election, care about immigration, and whether they would flex their political muscle to call for changes to our immigration laws. While several polls years ago showed that evangelicals were the most likely to view immigrants as a threat to American values, there has been a significant shift in evangelical attitudes toward immigrants for several reasons. Evangelicals are beginning to understand that immigration is not an issue about "them" but an issue about "us." Some of the largest evangelical denominations in the U.S., for example, are seeing significant growth due to immigration. Evangelicals also fundamentally believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and we are commanded to take Scripture seriously. Scripture is clear that God cares for immigrants (the Hebrew word for immigrant, ger, is mentioned 92 times in the Old Testament alone), and He calls His believers to do the same (Leviticus 19; Deuteronomy 24; Matthew 25).

This week, World Relief, as a member of the Evangelical Immigration Table, launched the "I Was A Stranger" Challenge, the largest grassroots effort to mobilize thousands of evangelicals on the issue of immigration. The Challenge encourages individuals, students, pastors and legislators to go back to the root of their faith and have Scripture inform their attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy. A short video with some of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country reading from Matthew 25 which says "I was a stranger, and you invited me in" was launched this week to help mobilize Challenge participants in churches, campuses and across the country. Armed with a simple bookmark listing 40 verses of Scripture related to immigrants, participants are invited to read one passage a day to inspire discipleship.

The unprecedented grassroots effort includes many channels to keep challenge participants inspired and informed, including a social media campaign that has already reached over hundreds of thousands of people through Twitter using hashtag #IWasAStranger, as well as a text messaging campaign that allows individuals to receive regular immigration updates. This February, The Justice Conference in Philadelphia which will prominently discuss the issue of immigration, will also feature the video and challenge thousands of Christians to act.

This effort to reach evangelicals will help shape a new narrative and political environment in which immigration reform can be passed. Research by Ruth Melkonian-Hoover of Gordon College suggests that white evangelicals who hear a positive message about immigrants from their leaders are much less likely to see immigrants as a threat (19.6 percent) than white evangelicals without personal exposure to immigrants (50.7 percent) and far more likely (81.5 percent, compared to 54 percent) to support the compassionate public policies that many evangelical leaders advocate. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the majority of evangelicals (65 percent) support "creating a way for illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain requirements." Evangelicals understand that immigration reform would restore the rule of law and supporting a pathway to legalization would allow for full, restorative reconciliation of their brothers and sisters who live daily in fear of being separated from their families.

Elected officials who want to do the right thing on immigration are looking for a political environment in which they won't be criticized by the left and right wings of their base for working together. Evangelicals are at the forefront of shepherding this movement forward and see their action (or inaction) on immigration as an issue of stewardship tied fundamentally to what they believe about Christ and Scripture. In a news conference yesterday, Taylor Bell, a student leader of the G92 movement at Samford University, said, "For many college students, it wasn't until the passage of HB56 and stories of families being split up, that we realized we have a civil rights issue in our hands right here in our state that we as Christians are called to respond to." Bill Hamel, President of the Evangelical Free Church of America, echoed his sentiments. "As an evangelical," he said, "I am committed to not missing this moment in history where we can lead a movement for biblical justice and compassion. Evangelicals sat on the sidelines in the civil rights discussions but we must not this time!"

In this new year, many people are asking what issue will bring both parties together that will demonstrate the ability for our elected officials to compromise together for the sake of the common good. Immigration reform may be the issue through which Americans' confidence in the political process can be restored, and 2013 is the year to get it done.

Jenny Yang is Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief and can be followed on Twitter: