An unlikely group of conservative evangelicals issued a statement Tuesday calling for just immigration reform that includes an earned pathway for undocumented immigrants already in the country.
The leaders, who together represent tens of millions of evangelicals, said the immigration debate is not just a political one but a moral issue. They are calling on the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would secure the borders and allow millions of undocumented people to "come out of the shadows."
The evangelical leaders who affirmed the statement on immigration include: Dr. Richard Land, president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel; the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Bishop George McKinney, pastor of St. Stephen's Cathedral of the Church of God in Christ; among others.
Undocumented persons, the statement recommended, would be on one of three paths: earned legal citizenship or legal residency, legal guest-worker status, or swift deportation if found to be a felon.
"Let us be clear – an earned pathway to citizenship is not amnesty," reads the statement, addressing the popular criticism "We reject amnesty. And we ask those who label an earned pathway to citizenship as amnesty to stop politicizing this debate needlessly and to honestly acknowledge the difference."
Neither amnesty nor mass deportation is a solution to the U.S.'s broken immigration system, the leaders asserted.
"[W]e are both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws," they said.
The evangelical leaders also commented on the recently passed Arizona immigration law, the toughest in the nation. They said while the state law is not the "wisest course of action," it resulted from the federal government's failure to reform its immigration policy.
"Arizona lawmakers felt compelled to act because the federal government would not," the statement reads. "It is the federal government's failure that has led to the current crisis. The Arizona law is a symptom and a cry for help."
Conservative evangelicals, though new to the immigration reform scene, have been an increasingly strong voice in calling for changes in U.S. policies.
Southern Baptist leader Richard Land in 2007 stood with the NHCLC's Rodriguez and members of Congress to call for comprehensive immigration reform. Land said Hispanics come to the country illegally to work, "whereas our homegrown people who break the law, break the law so they don't have to work," he said, referring to Americans who hire illegal immigrants.
Also, last fall, the National Association of Evangelicals released a landmark resolution on immigration that criticized the current broken system and called for more humane policies that recognize that undocumented people are also made in the image of God.
"We want our nation to be known as a beacon of hope and freedom for the hurting, the poor and the oppressed for all nations," said NAE board member Berten Waggoner in October. "This requires us to change our immigration laws and practice to reflect the faith commitments that we evangelicals hold dear."
The NAE also stressed it supports stronger border control.
In addition to border control and earned pathway to citizenship, the evangelical leaders who signed the April 11 immigration statement also called for a just assimilation immigration process that teaches English, the history and founding documents of America, and the common values of liberty and justice to undocumented immigrants who want to be U.S. citizens.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.