Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke and Hispanic evangelicals were among 14 religious leaders who met with Obama and senior staff March 8 to discuss the effort to remedy what is widely acknowledged as an immigration system badly in need of repair. The current system has resulted in the illegal presence of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
He was "very encouraged" by the meeting, said Duke, who added Obama "spoke clearly about his desire to see us achieve passage of legislation this year."
"While many details remain to be worked out, the big pieces are in place. Secure borders, workplace enforcement, legal status for undocumented immigrants who qualify, and a citizenship process for those who desire to be U.S. citizens are all within reach," said Duke, vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
The "big pieces" cited by Duke are components in the kind of reform the ERLC and other members of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) have called for and heard echoed by Obama in the meeting. In written statements released through the EIT, Duke and others who are part of the new coalition of evangelical leaders responded positively to what the president said.
The meeting "invigorated me with hope and optimism," Samuel Rodriguez said.
"The president's resolve," along with evangelical support, offers "the prescription for a comprehensive resolution" to the problem, said the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
"The collective commitment to incorporate a pathway to citizenship as an integral part of any legislative solution secures a complete integration process," Rodriguez said. "Both the president and faith leaders understand that citizenship must be earned, yet denying it will create a two-tier society attempting to live one dream: the American dream."
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, described the meeting as "a clarion sign for Latino Evangelicals that immigration reform is possible."
Latino evangelicals "stand committed to see this through in ways that provide an earned path to citizenship while addressing any security concerns," he said in a written statement.
Obama told the religious leaders he was committed to working with Congress in a bipartisan fashion for immigration reform, the White House said in a written release. He pointed to the progress being made by a bipartisan group of senators but encouraged the meeting participants to continue their efforts. The president also thanked them for their work on the issue, according to the release.
The religious leaders thanked Obama for his leadership on the issue and prayed with him, the White House reported.The meeting came as Congress is seeking to address the immigration issue in a serious fashion for the first time since 2007. Four Republicans -- led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- and four Democrats in the Senate have proposed a plan for broad reform.
Supporters of immigration reform have warned there is only a narrow window of opportunity for passage in this two-year, congressional session, which closes at the end of 2014. ERLC President Richard Land has predicted approval must happen by the Fourth of July or Labor Day.
Other participants in the meeting with Obama, according to the White House, were Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals; Stephan Bauman, president, World Relief; Minerva Carcano, United Methodist Church bishop, Los Angeles; Luis Cortes, president, Esperanza; Orlando Findlayter, senior pastor, New Hope Christian Fellowship in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jose Gomez, Roman Catholic archbishop, Los Angeles; Mark Hetfield, president, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Kathryn Lohre, president, National Council of Churches; Mohamed Magid, president, Islamic Society of North America; Dieter Uchtdorf, second counselor, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Jim Wallis, president, Sojourners.
The proposal by Rubio and the other senators would require undocumented immigrants to register with the government -- as well as pass a background check and pay back taxes and a fine -- to gain "probationary legal status." All enforcement provisions must be final before an immigrant on probation can earn a green card and apply for citizenship years later. A commission, which includes governors and attorneys general from Southwestern border states, must make a recommendation about when the security prerequisites are met.
Immigrants on probation will not be able to receive federal benefits and must go to the back of the line for all immigrants, undergo another background check, learn English and civics, and prove they have a history of employment and a current job to seek permanent residency.
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 establish after securing the borders "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.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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