Divided: Why Latino Christians Don’t Always Support Immigration Reform | Sojourners

Divided: Why Latino Christians Don’t Always Support Immigration Reform

Trump supporters Rally at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in October 2020. Picture Architect/ Alamy via Reuters Connect

Miguel Cárdenas came to the U.S. as a child in 1980. His parents brought him from the western Mexican state of Jalisco across the Rio Grande without documentation.

They went on to work for farms across Texas with the hope of giving their son a better life. Then, on Nov. 6, 1986, when Cárdenas was in fifth grade, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, allowing around 3 million immigrants who entered the U.S. without papers before 1982 — including the Cárdenas family — the ability to apply for legal status.

“It’s the classic American dream,” Miguel, now 48, said. “I am eternally grateful to my parents and Reagan for making my life what it is today.”

That life is filled with family barbecues and hunting trips with his wife and three kids; building his insurance business in Houston; and volunteering his time with his local church, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Republican party in the greater Houston area. He enthusiastically supported former President Donald Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020.

“Sometimes, people are surprised to meet a Mexican migrant who is pro-Trump,” Cárdenas said. “But then I remind them that of all people, we are pro-family, pro-security, pro-business.”

As Cárdenas makes clear, Latinos do not always support candidates with progressive immigration policies — including policies that expand legal pathways to citizenship, enforce fewer penalties for those who immigrate without documentation, or end sanctions that devastate economies and fuel immigration. Experts and members of the community say Latinos of faith, with or without an immigration background, can feel torn between theologies that emphasize respect for the rule of law, a cultural emphasis on the family, allegiances to denominations that encourage support for conservative candidates, and their own personal trajectories, like that of Cárdenas, that can lead them one way or the other.


People pray together at the Cornerstone Children’s Ranch during the “Take Our Border Back” convoy rally on February 3, 2024 in Quemado, Texas. Photo by Michael Nigro/Sipa USA

Cultural influences, cultural pressures

In 2020, many assumed Trump’s charged rhetoric and stringent policies on immigration and border security would estrange Latino voters. But Trump secured 32 percent of the Latino vote.

And ahead of the 2024 elections, in which Latino voters make up 14.7 percent of voters, Latinos seem split on the leading presidential candidates: A March poll from The New York Times and Siena College showed Trump with a 6 percent advantage among Latino voters against President Joe Biden, but noted the “sample size of the group is not large enough to assess small differences reliably.” An April Axios/Ipsos poll conducted in partnership with Noticias Telemundo showed that Latino Americans view both Biden and Trump unfavorably. The same poll found Latinos to favor Trump on issues such as the economy, crime, and immigration while preferring Biden on issues like abortion.

These polls, said theologian Leopoldo A. Sánchez at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, reflect tensions many Latino believers in the U.S. wrestle with: the pressure of assimilation — or what migrants need to do to navigate life in a new place — and the fault lines of the U.S. culture they find themselves in.

Sánchez, who was born in Chile and raised in Panama, said that some of the cultural influences on Latinos include a community-oriented way of looking at life and a high priority placed on the well-being of the family.

“This means when you come to the immigration debate, family unity, keeping families together, becomes more important than what political party you might be a part of,” he said.

Even if Latinos support progressive border politics, he said they may place more emphasis on meeting practical needs through local service and individual or family advancement rather than advocating for policy reform or political action.

He also noted that many migrants escape dysfunctional governments and come to the U.S. seeking order and peace through the rule of law.

“If you’re coming with this pro-family, conservative political orientation, and desire for strong enforcement, perhaps it’s not surprising you prefer one party over the other,” he said.

At the same time, Sánchez said immigrants do not always find a comfortable place to fit in the U.S. two-party system or within existing evangelical, Catholic, Mainline, and Pentecostal church bodies.

“Immigrants [and] Latinos are constantly wrestling with the question of what it means to be a ‘legitimate American’ — or a ‘legitimate American Christian,” he said. “For example, sometimes being enmeshed in conservative, evangelical culture means sharing and honoring certain bonds of fellowship and adopting things like American patriotism or particular political views and persuasions.”


Hundreds marched to Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso on March 21, 2024 for a vigil for the human dignity of migrants and to commemorate the anniversary of the fire in the immigration detention in Ciudad Juárez. Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

A common vision?

For non-Latino Christian denominations, groups, or ministries working in immigration advocacy, it’s important not to assume that immigrant-led, or immigrant-majority congregations will automatically share a common vision. According to their research with immigrant-advocacy groups in Southern California, Brad Christerson, Alexia Salvatierra, Robert Chao Romero and Nancy Wang Yuen — the authors of God’s Resistance — write that immigrant-majority or immigrant-led congregations may decline to participate in immigration advocacy because they are politically conservative, differ theologically from progressive congregations leading advocacy efforts, or are afraid of exposing their congregations to surveillance or policing by immigration authorities.

Thus, when progressive white Christians “push immigrant congregations to engage in advocacy, there can be a mixture of suspicion about their broader theological and political perspectives and resentment about yet again having white people think that they know more about their needs than they do,” they write.

For other Latinos, Christian faith is central to their immigrant-advocacy work, including Latino-led Christian organizations like Mission Talk, Camino Alliance, and the Latino Christian National Network that aim to engage their faith communities in social change.

Carlos L. Malavé, president of the Latino Christian National Network said via email that Jesus’ teachings, “regarding his care and the opportunities for all of his children are unquestionable.” [Editor’s note: Malavé is a Sojourners board member. Sojourners’ editors retain all control of editorial decisions.]

Hay un lugar en la mesa para todos,” Malavé wrote before adding a translation. “There is a seat for all at the table.” 

But within the Latino church, Malavé sees a crisis of leadership. “As Christian leaders, it is our calling and duty to protect the right of all to the fullness of life, especially the downtrodden and vulnerable,” he wrote.

“Our allegiance can’t be to political movements or parties; our allegiance must be to Christ and those he loves,” Malavé wrote. “How would Latino leaders not care for the hopes and aspirations of their immigrant brothers and sisters?”


U.S. Border Patrol Agent Marcia Finnegan apprehends a migrant who tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border undetected in the desert of Sunland Park, New Mexico on June 23, 2023. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

When compassion and empathy disappear

Immigration policy can also drive a wedge within immigrant-led or immigrant-majority congregations. Or, within immigrants themselves.

Assemblies of God pastor Noe Carias, who escaped kidnapping in Guatemala at the age of 13, said most people who worship at his church — Iglesia Pentecostes Cristo la Roca de Poder, in Los Angeles — do not have permanent legal status. But among those who do, Carias notices an interesting trend.

“They can stop having compassion on those without status,” he said. And, he said, their politics often follow suit.

“They start supporting candidates who lack compassion for migrants and their families,” he said. “That hurts me, to see that in my church, when people choose a candidate who doesn’t have empathy for migrant families.”

Empathy is something Carias understands well. In 2017, Carias spent almost two months incarcerated in a detention center in Adelanto, Calif., after being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite having lived in the U.S. for nearly 25 years, being married to his U.S.-born wife, Victoria, for 14 years and having had two U.S.-born children, Nylah and Abraham, he was threatened with deportation. A coalition of various Christian denominations, immigration rights groups, and faith communities rallied around his cause. With pressure and persistence, they secured his release in September 2017.

For Carias, living without legal status in the U.S. meant he always supported the immigrant community or tried to meet the needs of individuals in similar situations.

“But after that terrible experience, I saw things differently,” he explained. “My wife’s tears, the tears of my children taught me to have compassion on immigrants where they are and whatever they are going through.”

‘A comprehensive view’

Carias encouraged Latinos of faith who already have permanent status to find the same compassion within themselves.

“God told Israel, after they were slaves and foreigners, when they were free, to not forget, to have compassion for the foreigners in their own land,” he said. “That’s part of Christianity, to have compassion, especially for the immigrant.”

At the same time, Carias never tells others who to vote for or what policies to support; he understands why some people within his church choose to support candidates — like Trump — who advocate stringent border enforcement and employ generalized, anti-immigrant rhetoric. He even feels torn himself: While Carias continues to wait on the outcome of his own case, he said if he could vote, he might vote for Trump.

“In the end, we can’t focus on just one issue. Our view can’t be limited to just see the situation of the immigrant community,” he said. “We have to have a comprehensive view of politics and remember that issues like abortion, crime, health care, and the economy are important too.”

Asked what advice he would give to Latino voters of faith pulled between various political, cultural, and theological influences, Carias said, “the first thing I say is that you have the greatest privilege.

“So bring that to God in prayer,” he said, “God will illuminate. He always illuminates.”