Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and Richard Land, head of the SBC's ethics entity, were among more than 20 Southern Baptist denominational leaders, academics and pastors who endorsed an "Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform." The Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), a new coalition, released the statement signed by 150 evangelicals at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday (June 12).
In the statement, the signers call for government leaders to work with the American people for a "bipartisan solution" on the controversial issue that:
-- "Respects the God-given dignity of every person;
-- "Protects the unity of the immediate family;
-- "Respects the rule of law;
-- "Guarantees secure national borders;
-- "Ensures fairness to taxpayers;
-- "Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents."
The signers acknowledge efforts to repair what many of them describe as a broken system that has resulted in polarization and a misrepresentation of "each other's positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost."
While Land and other leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table have been promoting comprehensive reform for several years, the statement marks a significant expansion of evangelical endorsers in a cooperative effort. Notably, Focus on the Family took a stance on the issue for the first time when its president, Jim Daly, signed the statement. The coalition includes evangelicals from both the left and right.
The EIT "is diverse in its formation, but it is unified in its biblically mandated vision to help create a better life for immigrants" based on its stated principles, Land said at the news conference. Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Sojourners President Jim Wallis, known for his left-leaning politics, pointed to the agreement between his organization and more conservative groups such as the SBC, Focus on the Family and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
"That doesn't happen very often," Wallis told reporters. "An effort for immigration reform of this size and this diverse has never been attempted in the evangelical community."
It appears there will be no attempt to move immigration reform in Congress this year. The political will does not seem to exist at either the White House or Capitol to pursue action on such a controversial issue before the November election. Yet, EIT members said it is time to promote reform.
"There may not be a vote on immigration reform in the Congress before November, but there are going to be a lot of votes in November," NAE President Leith Anderson said at the news conference.
The positions of incumbents and challengers on immigration reform could impact the election, Land pointed out. He cited a Pew Forum survey that showed 70 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who backs comprehensive reform.
"That tells me that it's time for the politicians to understand that the country has changed on this issue, and they believe it's well past time for the government to get its act together and to pass immigration reform that is in line with these principles," Land said. "And we as evangelicals are here to say to both parties, 'Get with it.'
"We are absolutely convinced that the country is ahead of its elected leaders on this issue -- in both parties," he said.
The pastor of a Southern Baptist mega-church told reporters that immigration reform is "an urgent moral issue" for pastors and churches. About 30 percent of the congregation of Champion Forest Baptist Church, which is located on the northwest side of Houston, Texas, is Hispanic, said senior pastor David Fleming.
"In churches across America, we deal with the challenges and the failures of our current immigration policy on a regular basis," Fleming said. "The people most affected by the current policy are not anonymous to us. We know their names and their faces, their hopes and dreams, their gifts and their skills. We recognize their inherent value and their great potential as human beings."
Sometimes, it is impossible to help those in the church who are caught in an immigration system that does not account for changes in their circumstances, Fleming said.
The EIT's statement does not propose precise policies, and one speaker at the news conference acknowledged, "Much, much work remains to be done on the specifics."
Tom Minnery, a senior vice president for Focus on the Family, said, "As difficult as it was getting all these signers together, the next step -- getting politicians together -- is a much greater task."
The EIT heads -- which include Land, Anderson, Wallis and six others -- met with White House officials and congressional members June 12 and 13. It also is sponsoring radio ads in Colorado and Florida.
The June 12 news conference capped more than a year of preparation.
In addition to Wright, Land and Fleming, the Southern Baptists signing the EIT statement included Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; former SBC President James Merritt; Durham, N.C., pastor J.D. Greear; Robin Hadaway, interim president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Daniel Sanchez, missions professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The statement and the signers may be accessed online at http://www.evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/.
Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials secure the borders, and with secure borders, establish "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
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.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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