A prayer for immigration reform

Posted: January 23, 2013

For most of the past three decades, efforts to get immigration reform through Congress haven't had a prayer. That all changed last week, when spiritual leaders organized as the Evangelical Immigration Table announced a campaign to revise immigration policy.

The "I Was a Stranger" immigration prayer challenge will use social media to enlist more than 100,000 evangelical churches nationwide and more than 875,000 followers to read one Scripture on immigration each day for 40 days.

Just as political leaders are having epiphanies about changing demographics, faith communities are seeing their futures in those numbers. Neighborhoods and denominations are growing more diverse. One of America's largest evangelical churches, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., has a Sunday service in Spanish.

Tim King, a spokesman for Sojourners, one of the founding partners of the Evangelical Immigration Table, said the work on immigration reform has been under way for a couple of years. In June, hundreds of evangelical groups and leaders endorsed bipartisan immigration reform that:

Respects the God-given dignity of every person.

Protects the unity of the family.

Respects the rule of law.

Guarantees secure borders.

Is fair to taxpayers.

Establishes a path toward legal status for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.

In November, the organization called on President Obama to pursue immigration reform in the first 92 days of his new term. The Hebrew word for immigrant, ger, appears in the Bible 92 times.

Beyond the moral imperative to fix a system that tears apart families and puts workers at risk of exploitation, the campaign provides cover in politically dangerous territory. The faithful might believe God judges a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable, but politicians are worried about reelection.

President Obama tried to raise the topic in 2011, and it went nowhere. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a presidential prospect, is mouthing the words Obama used two years ago. The White House has welcomed his support. Neither has a plan on paper, but both are grounded in amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants.

The Latino vote went heavily for Obama, and Republicans recognized that they would be talking to themselves without some recognition that times have changed. Open the bedside table in a motel: CNN reports that copies of the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, are turning up with the Bible and Book of Mormon. Karen Isaksen Leonard, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Irvine, explained that like Muslims, Hindus are trying to become part of the American mainstream through education and, increasingly, political activism.

Daniel J. Tichenor, a political science professor at the University of Oregon, noted that significant immigration reforms last came in 1986, after congressional discussions that started in the early 1970s. President George W. Bush tried and failed in 2001 and 2006. For all the apparent political traction around immigration reform today, Tichenor expects them to trail behind debates over gun legislation and budget issues.

Seattle-based U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan put the immigration reforms in another perspective. She said new laws could free up resources for other pressing crime prevention.

Evangelicals have attentive audiences on Sunday mornings and on Capitol Hill. Their commitment and influence might empower substantive change.

Lance Dickie is a columnist for the Seattle Times. He can be reached at ldickie@seattletimes.com.

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