WASHINGTON (BP)--The federal government needs to enact immigration reform soon before it becomes even more problematic to resolve, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said recently in the country's capital.

The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission joined other religious leaders who favor comprehensive immigration reform in a symposium at Georgetown University.

"If we don't deal with this issue successfully soon, it will be more difficult and more painful to deal with it later," Land said.

Americans are ready for reform, even if public policy makers are not, Land said.

"I think the American public in general is well ahead of its elected representatives on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "They are ready for their elected representatives to behave like statesmen rather than politicians."

The discussion among Land and representatives from Roman Catholic and Jewish organizations came three and a half years since Congress last voted -- unsuccessfully -- on an immigration reform bill, and the other panelists indicated they believe the effort to approve comprehensive reform may be still in its early stages.

"This is a long-term struggle," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "When I started this job, I thought, 'Oh boy, we'll get this in the next few years and that will be great and I'll move on to something else.' And now I'm like, OK, this is going to take a little bit longer than I thought.'"

An immigration reform bill will not be "a silver bullet," said Appleby, who added the issue will continue to be addressed throughout the country's history.

Melanie Nezer, senior director for U.S. programs and advocacy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told the audience, "Building a movement takes time. I think we thought that this would go a lot faster than it has.... e have to take the long view."

An analysis of public opinion surveys shows Americans believe the country's immigration system is broken and they favor a comprehensive approach to reforming it. The results from 2010 polls presented at the Feb. 24 symposium by Daniel Cox of the Public Religion Research Institute showed:

-- More than half, 56 percent, of Americans say the immigration system is completely or mostly broken, while only 7 percent think it is generally working.

-- 58 percent of the public favors comprehensive reform when given a basic description of such a plan, but that percentage jumps to 86 percent when provided a fuller description that explains it will require all illegal immigrants to register with the government and meet certain requirements, including paying taxes and learning English, before applying for citizenship.

-- At least 80 percent in each case said four values are very important guides to immigration reform: (1) Enforcing the rule of law and providing for national security; (2) ensuring fairness to taxpayers; (3) promoting the dignity of each person, and (4) keeping families together.

-- About half said they were more likely to vote in the 2010 election for candidates who supported comprehensive reform, while only 1 in 5 said they were less likely.

Land and Appleby both cited concerns about illegal immigration among Americans that go deeper than jobs and the economy. It is estimated there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

"The fear in my community, at least, and I think it's true in most American communities, is they do not want a bilingual country," Land said. "They want this to be an English-speaking country."

Appleby said a major issue is a "cultural fear" that is "not so much about economics and jobs and rule of law, which is also an issue. It's also about people fearing that the nation's changing. You know: 'Who are all these newcomers?'"

For evangelicals at least, Land said, it is important "to put a human face on this, to understand that a significant number of these undocumented workers are evangelicals."

Hispanic Southern Baptist leaders have told Land about 40 percent of the 800,000 to one million Hispanic Southern Baptists are undocumented, he said.

That "really shouldn't be surprising," Land said. "It's no secret that we evangelize. That's why we are called evangelicals. We share our faith. We believe it is an important part of our faith to share our faith. So Hispanics come to this country, and they are looking for jobs. And we evangelize them, and they become Baptists."

Appleby said advocates for comprehensive reform "need to do a better job of talking about people as sharing our same values, being who we are, part of the American dream. And I think when we keep doing that, I think eventually we'll win this."

Land has consistently called for comprehensive reform that includes a pathway to citizenship that would consist of such requirements as paying fines, undergoing a criminal background check, learning English, pledging allegiance to the American government, accepting a probationary period and going to the back of the line behind those seeking to enter the country legally.

Messengers to the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention meeting passed a resolution on immigration that urged increased border security, enforcement of the laws, and judicious and realistic dealings with illegal immigrants, while encouraging Christian outreach to immigrants regardless of their legal status.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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