Hours before Congress passed the final version of health care legislation on Sunday, tens of thousands of people marched in the nation's capitol, pressing politicians to take on immigration reform.
"Health care was consuming all the oxygen in the room. The rally gives a big shot in the arm for possibility of reform," said Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), who attended the rally. "If the atmosphere is poisoned where politicians might disagree because they're angry, that could be a problem. Immigration should be low-hanging fruit because a polarized Congress could do something on a bipartisan basis."
Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) released an outline of a bill last week that would call for securing borders and require illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, pay fines and back taxes, and do community service if they want a path to legal status.
"There's a sense of urgency because we have the dynamics in Congress," Carey said. "After the fall elections, we'll have a whole new cast of characters."
Graham released a statement saying he believed that passage of health care reform would probably kill the immigration effort this year. Still, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, remained hopeful after offering a prayer at the rally.
"President Obama used the presidential bully pulpit for health care reform. Health care reform was dead in the water but he was able to resurrect it," said Rodriguez, who met with White House officials the day after the rally. "Immigration reform is a Lazarus moment for the president."
Last October, the NAE approved a resolution on immigration reform, calling on the government to secure national borders and create a process for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status.
"The NAE statement reflects the behind-the-scenes work that has been happening for a while," said Ian Danley, a youth pastor with Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, Arizona. "Now it allows a lot more communities to speak out, since pastors can use those types of statements."
Data from a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey suggest that white evangelicals who attend church weekly are less likely to say that illegal immigrants should be required to return home immediately than those who attend church less than once a week. They are also less opposed to undocumented workers gaining legal status or possible citizenship.
"As our congregations are changing demographically, people have more proximity to immigrants through churches," said Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, a political studies professor at Gordon College, who studied the data. "They're hearing more about 'welcoming the stranger' from the pulpit."
A handful of Denver-area leaders have started writing a statement about how theology shapes their views on immigration law, said Jeff Johnsen, executive director of an urban center called Mile High Ministries. The center began supporting immigration reform in the last six months.
"We hope to build enough momentum to let our Colorado congressional delegation know that they cannot safely assume that all evangelical Christians are opposed to immigration reform," he said.
Rodriguez said that he would still like to see strong support on immigration reform from specific evangelical leaders: Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.
"Those gentlemen have the potential of changing the game, confirming the process that's already started," Rodriguez said. "We do need a tea party-like movement now, not just support from the leadership."
Daly told The Wall Street Journal that he plans to look at the immigration because "families are being torn apart" through deportations.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on immigration include:
Evangelicals Endorse Immigration Reform | The National Association of Evangelicals' board overwhelmingly approved a resolution to seek 'faith and equal treatment' of immigrants. (October 9, 2009)
Counting Controversy | Hispanic evangelical leaders debate participation in 2010 U.S. Census. (August 17, 2009)
The Soul of the Border Crisis | Local churches are key in fixing the immigration mess. (June 8, 2009)
CT also follows political developments on the politics blog.