WASHINGTON – Usually, conservative evangelicals are not known to support immigration reform. But several prominent leaders of the movement made their case Tuesday evening for new immigration laws, joining a growing number of Christians who refer to the Bible for support in "welcoming the stranger."
The evangelical leaders – including Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals – urged American evangelicals to engage in the immigration debate and call upon the U.S. government to work on new immigration laws this year.
Immigrants, having become the fastest growing evangelical church in the United States, are not "the others," but they are "us," the leaders pointed out.
"I get asked a lot, why this issue? Why as Christians and evangelicals, in particular, do we need to care about immigrants and policies in particular," said Matthew Soerens, co-author of Welcoming the Stranger, at the book's launch event on Tuesday. "It is because those people we talk about, those immigrants, those aliens, they are us as part of the church."
Soerens, who works directly with immigrants as a World Relief staff, says he has met many Hispanic, Asian, and African immigrants in his line of work. What he realized was that the church, which the Bible says is the body of Christ, includes a lot of immigrants in the United States.
"Corinthians tells us if one part of the body suffers then the whole body is suffering," he said. "As Christians, as part of the church, we don't have a choice but to engage in this issue. And people are suffering, they are living in fear."
The leaders also referenced the New Testament story in Luke 10 of the Good Samaritan – "a stranger or alien himself" – who stopped to help the Jewish man.
"This and other parables remind us that 'we are all aliens sent out to help other aliens find a place of safety in this world,'" says a 2006 statement by World Relief in support of comprehensive immigration reform. The statement references Jonathan Robert Nelson's 2006 remarks for The American Bar Association's "Fortress America: The State and Future of U.S. Immigration Law and Policy" event.
The leaders also cited verses, such as Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Exodus 22:21 about showing love and compassion to "aliens," which are often alluded to by Christian immigration reform proponents.
"Immigration policies in the United States have changed a lot of times throughout our history and it is time for immigrant policies to change again," said NAE president Leith Anderson, who noted at the onset of his remarks that he is the son of an immigrant.
"In terms of what that means, it means fairness, family, it means finance," he said.
Anderson and other evangelical leaders talked about the inequality in current U.S. immigration laws and criticized how they break up families. He also called on the government to provide adequate finances to implement immigration laws and reduce the "enormous" waiting time for immigrants applying for legal status.
Pastor Derrick Harkins of the historic black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., stated, "We are calling for nothing more than for those persons who are presently immigrants to be able to function and thrive within the context of what is just. We are talking about an earned right to citizenship. We are talking about them operating within the framework of a just set of laws.
"But we also talk about extending mercy. I hope that again – the language of the church thrives in this regards – that we understand that we are called to extend that measure of mercy. And that mercy means that the issue of family reunification act is indeed significant priority."
Harkins and other evangelical leaders spoke at the Tuesday event to support the launching of Welcoming the Stranger, written by two World Relief staffs. The book seeks to "debunk" myths about immigration and equip evangelical leaders to discuss the controversial issue with their congregants.
World Relief is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals and is one of the nation's leading organizations when it comes to helping resettle refugees. It also provides immigration legal services, English classes and other assistance to refugees and immigrants in the United States.
The ministry officially supports border security, expanded legal avenues through which immigrants can enter the United States, expedited family reunification and an opportunity for the undocumented to earn legal status.