Prominent leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table took dueling positions on the controversial executive order President Barack Obama announced Thursday that will allow millions of undocumented workers to acquire work permits and temporarily protect them from deportation.
Appealing to America's compassion through Scripture in a 15-minute address Thursday, Obama announced his executive order to forward an immigration plan where some four million people will be eligible for a new legal status that will temporarily prevent them from being deported and allow them to work. An additional one million people will also have some protection from deportation through other parts of the president's plan.
"We shall not oppress a stranger for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too," Obama told the nation.
Members of the EIT, a broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders who have been advocating for immigration reform consistent with some of the same biblical values invoked by Obama Thursday, however, have expressed divided positions on how President Obama has decided to help the strangers living in the shadows.
Dr. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of the leaders of the EIT praised Obama's decision in a release Thursday.
"The President's executive action, although not the preferable delivery mechanism, initiates a reconciliatory prescription necessary in addressing a defacto humanitarian crisis within our borders: millions of God's children created in his image living in the shadows," said Rodriguez.
"This merciful action takes place because for years our government, under the leadership of both parties, failed miserably as it pertains to immigration. For years, our elected officials sacrificed lives on the altar of political expediency. For years, rhetorical articulation fell short of redemptive action. For years, we as a nation stood by while families experienced separation, children suffered and national unity lay shattered," he lamented.
On Friday, Rodriguez flew to Las Vegas to join President Obama at a rally to highlight the divide between Republicans and Democrats on immigration at a local high school where Hispanics are seen as an increasingly powerful voting group.
In a TIME op-ed, however, Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who also serves as an EIT leader, said President Obama's executive order on immigration reform is a bad idea.
"I disagree with President Barack Obama's decision to act unilaterally on immigration policy. I am for immigration reform, for all sorts of reasons that I have outlined elsewhere. The system we have is incoherent and unjust. I have worked hard to try to see the system changed, and will continue to do so. It's because of my support for immigrants and for immigration reform that I think President Obama's executive actions are the wrong thing to do," noted Moore.
"On more than one occasion, I asked President Obama not to turn immigration reform into a red state/blue state issue. I also asked him not to act unilaterally, but to work for consensus through the legislative process. Acting unilaterally threatens that consensus, and is the wrong thing to do," he continued.
Moore, in apparent acknowledgement of the divisions over the contentious issue within the EIT, said he hopes the Church will be able to rise beyond the disagreements on the issue.
"My hope is that the Republicans in Congress will not allow the President's actions here as a pretext for keeping in the rut of the status quo. More importantly, I pray that our churches will transcend all of this posing and maneuvering that we see in Washington. Whatever our agreements and disagreements on immigration policy, we as the Body of Christ are those who see every human life as reflecting the image of God," said Moore.
Other conservatives, like Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of American Principles in Action's Latino Partnership, dismissed President Obama's decision on immigration as a "blatant political move".
"President Obama's decision to act unilaterally to postpone the deportation of up to five million undocumented immigrants is a blatant political move that sadly puts at risk the chances of passing a bill through Congress that provides a permanent solution to those in the country illegally," said Aguilar in a press release Thursday.
"Latinos should not be fooled: the President cares more about appeasing his liberal base and helping the future electoral chances of the Democratic Party than providing real relief to the undocumented. We shouldn't celebrate a half-baked measure that is merely temporary, doesn't provide legal status, and can easily be rescinded by a future president," he added.
Jim Wallis, president and CEO, Sojourners and another EIT leader could not disagree with Aguilar more.
"Tonight, faith leaders and all those who have spent years trying to fix our broken immigration system should feel gratitude toward President Obama. In a primetime address to the nation, the president announced he was taking executive action to relieve some of the suffering caused by the failures of the status quo. Millions of families will no longer live under the daily threat of having their lives torn apart by senseless deportations, which is something all Christians – whether Republican or Democrat – should celebrate," he noted in an op-ed Thursday.
"Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have spent significant portions of their lives hiding in the shadows, can now enjoy the flourishing God intends for us all. Their joy and well-being must inform our judgments of the president's action, especially in light of the biblical call to 'welcome the stranger'," he continued.
"Unfortunately, the president's compassionate actions are creating a political firestorm among some Republicans in Washington. Their anger and antipathy toward the White House are blinding them to the positive effects these measures will have for our society. Even after decades living and working in our nation's capital, I'm still amazed at the many ways political ideology can prevent us from having 'eyes that see' and 'ears that hear.' I lament that our political discourse has come to this," he said.