Faith Leaders Back Obama on Immigration Reform

President Obama's call on Thursday for the federal government to quickly pass immigration reform was backed by diverse and somewhat unlikely groups of religious leaders.

African-American and Hispanic pastors joined forces Wednesday in a first-of-its kind coalition to support comprehensive immigration reform. And on Thursday, conservative, white evangelical leaders attended the American University event in support of the president's first major speech on immigration.

The Rev. Bill Hybels, senior pastor of the 12,000-member Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, introduced President Obama who went on to call Republicans and Democrats to work together to overhaul the country's broken immigration system.

"The question now is whether we will have the courage and the political will to pass a bill through Congress, to finally get it done," the president said. "I'm ready to move forward, the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward. But the fact is that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem."

"Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes," he said, indirectly accusing Republicans of holding up comprehensive immigration reform.

Conservative, white evangelicals are among the Republican Party's staunchest supporters. But several of the evangelical community's most prominent members were in the audience Thursday to support the president and immigration reform.

The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, were in attendance.

In May, Anderson and Land were among the conservative, evangelicals that endorsed a statement urging immigration reform that included an earned pathway for undocumented immigrants already in the country. An ad version of the statement ran in "Roll Call," which is widely read by members of Congress, urging lawmakers to take up the issue.

"Let us be clear – an earned pathway to citizenship is not amnesty," the leaders contended in 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."

African-American and Hispanic pastors also addressed criticisms – mainly that illegal immigrants are taking away jobs from poor black Americans – on Wednesday while publicly rejecting claims of a "black-brown" divide on the issue.

"We have come together to dispel the ugly myths about a black and brown divide on immigration reform," said Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and co-convener of the coalition. "Throughout our history, immigrants have strengthened our country with their hard work and commitment to core American values."

"Immigrants are not taking our jobs or public resources," said Harkins. "The reality is that we are unified across ethnic and racial lines. We will not waver as we pursue justice on this human rights issue of our day."

The African-American and Hispanic coalition includes Esperanza for America; the National Baptist Convention, USA; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

There are an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 80 percent of Americans support a program to allow illegal immigrants already in the United States to apply for legal residency if they have a job and pay back taxes.

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