Megachurch Pastor: Public Ahead of Congress on Immigration

While Congress is ahead of the public on overhauling the health care system, the public is ahead of lawmakers on immigration reform, said a megachurch pastor Tuesday.

"One of the things that I perceived when I was both at the capital yesterday and in the White House is this (immigration reform) seems to be an issue that the public is out ahead of politicians on," said the Rev. Rich Nathan, pastor of the 10,000-member Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio.

Vineyard Church has a diverse body of congregants who collectively represent 75 nations.

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"There have been a lot of accusations regarding health care reform, that the politicians were out ahead of the public and out of step with the public," Nathan said during a teleconference for a national poll on immigration reform. "But in this particular case there is more sentiments coming from the public for a need for comprehensive reform and it's an issue I think our politicians need to exert some leadership on."

Several religious leaders participated in the release of a new survey that shows how U.S. citizens who are registered to vote feel about immigration reform. The survey finds broad support across religious groups for comprehensive immigration reform and strong support for clergy speaking out on the issue.

The nationwide telephone survey of 1,201 American voters, along with two surveys of voters from Ohio and Arkansas, were conducted March 5-11 by Public Religion Research Institute.

According to the survey, a majority (56 percent) of voters said the immigration system is completely or largely broken, and nearly nine out of ten American voters favor a policy that includes one of the key provisions of comprehensive immigration reform – that illegal immigrants be required to register with the government, work, pay taxes, and learn English before being allowed to apply for citizenship.

In terms of immigration reform and religious voters, the survey found that a majority of regular religious service attenders (at least once or twice per month) said they would be very (25 percent) or somewhat (29 percent) comfortable with their clergy speaking about immigration from the pulpit. Six out of ten people said they would be very or somewhat comfortable with clergy discussing the issue in their congregation's newsletter or website.

By religious tradition, nearly one-third (32 percent) of Catholic voters reported hearing their priest speak about the issue of immigration sometimes or often. In contrast, only 16 percent of white evangelicals reported the same about their pastor.

Pastor Nathan, who was part of a religious delegation that met with White House officials Monday to discuss immigration reform, recounted the plight of a Haitian family in his evangelical church.

The Haitian family had given a New York attorney $3,000 to file their immigration paperwork. They later found out that the lawyer never filed the documents. After the family moved to Ohio and joined Vineyard Church, they spent another $3,000 to file immigration paperwork again through an attorney. The family "wanted to do things the right way and file the right papers" but the immigration system was too complex and the wife ended up being deported back to Haiti in 2007.

The couple has three children in America and they have been separated for the past three years. Earlier this year, the wife was severely injured in the massive earthquake in Haiti but the husband cannot go to visit her unless he brings the three children and risks not being able to re-enter the United States.

"They don't know what they are going to do," said Nathan.

The survey shows that white evangelical voters are just as likely as white mainline, Catholic, and unaffiliated voters to say protecting the dignity of every person or keeping families together is very or extremely important. White evangelicals are somewhat more likely than other religious groups to say that the biblical value of welcoming the stranger is an important moral guide (63 percent vs. 53 percent of all voters).

There is strong support across all Christian traditions for reform that provides an earned path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Ninety percent of white evangelicals said they strongly favor or favor an earned pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, 92 percent of Catholics and 87 percent of white Mainline Christian voters also expressed strong support for creating an earned pathway.

Though white evangelicals show strong support for creating a pathway, they are the most likely out of the religious traditions to say immigrants today are a burden on the country (54 percent). Catholic and white mainline Protestant voters largely mirror the general population and are nearly divided between those who say immigrants today strengthen the country and those who say they are a burden.

"These findings highlight the importance of the religious community, which shares a common set of values on this issue," commented Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life. "The faith community is uniquely positioned to break down partisan barriers on immigration reform by emphasizing these shared values. This is critical in the weeks and months ahead as we work to fix our broken immigration system with support from both political parties."

Immigration reform advocates are pressing Congress and the Obama administration to take up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in April now that health care reform is done. More than 200,000 people crowded the National Mall this past Sunday to rally for immigration reform.

An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.

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