(Photo: AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON – Eight years ago, Hispanics were just glad to be in America. Today, they're pushing for upward mobility and for the ears on Capitol Hill.
"We are now making our voices heard," said the Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr., who heads Esperanza, the largest Hispanic evangelical network in the country. "Now we come and we feel indignant when political leaders don't address us or when they address us and don't understand our position."
Their efforts seem to be making headway as President Barack Obama said on Friday that he is committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Addressing hundreds from the Latino community during the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, Obama committed to providing a way for millions of undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens while also strengthening border security.
He specifically noted that the "fair, practical and promising way forward" on the immigration issue is to require illegal immigrants to pay a penalty, pay taxes, learn English and "go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules."
"The American people believe in immigration," he said. "But they also believe that we can't tolerate a situation where people come to the United States in violation of the law nor can we tolerate employers who exploit undocumented workers in order to drive down wages."
The crowd of Hispanic Christians welcomed Obama's vow with enthusiastic applause and eager snapshots to capture the moment.
Immigration reform has been the primary issue of concern for Hispanic Christians for years because of its devastating effect on families.
"Nothing has our families more divided than the immigration law of this country," Cortes told The Christian Post.
Cortes, who was named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America in 2005 by Time magazine, believes the faith community should lead the way on the immigration issue, calling it a moral issue and not an issue of law.
"It's an issue of God's love," he said, adding that Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and other churches have all signed on to support immigration reform.
Some churches and church leaders, he acknowledged, do not support immigration reform. But he has one request for them – to use the term amnesty appropriately.
"Amnesty has been used in a negative way," Cortes lamented.
"Amnesty is what Jesus Christ gave us ... so we should understand that it is free of charge," he stressed. "Church people using it with an incorrect definition is sinning against God."
Obama, however, has it right, the Hispanic evangelical leader said.
According to Cortes, Obama plans to call a meeting with congressional leaders next week to place comprehensive immigration reform on the agenda.
Though Cortes hopes the reform will pass this year, White House officials have done little to build up that hope.
Earlier this year, Obama administration officials told CNN that the White House is not pushing to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year given the state of the economy and other pressing issues. And though the president had always planned to begin discussing the matter this year the job will not likely be done this year, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Obama has also yet to lay out a timeline for overhauling immigration.