The news that immigration reform may be dead—at least for this year—isn’t likely to sit well in many of America’s churches.
A new poll from Nashville-based LifeWay Research finds nearly six in 10 senior pastors of Protestant churches support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
Many of those pastors hope reform will help them minister to more Hispanic Americans. But few say the current immigration system hurts current members of their flocks.
The poll of 1,007 senior pastors of Protestant churches, conducted Sept. 4-19, comes as immigration reform has stalled on Capitol Hill. The Senate passed a bill over the summer that includes a path to citizenship.
A House version of the bill seems dead, despite the efforts of supporters, which include a growing number of high profile Christian leaders.
“We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill,” Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters on Wednesday, according to CNN.
That outcome may disappoint many pastors. LifeWay Research found widespread support for immigration reform among local clergy.
Fifty-eight percent of Protestant pastors agree with the statement: “I am in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country illegally.”
Just over half (51 percent) agree that, “Immigration reform will help our church, denomination or movement reach Hispanic Americans.” Among pastors in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, 67 percent agree it will help their church, denomination, or movement reach Hispanic Americans.
A number of denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, have passed resolutions in favor of immigration reform in recent years.
Several national faith leaders, including representatives from the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, met with President Obama this week to discuss immigration reform.
Alejandro Mandes, national director of Immigrant Hope, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that trains churches on how to assist immigrants, has been working on immigration reform for a decade.
Ten years ago, Protestant pastors and groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals were reluctant to get involved in immigration issues, said Mandes.
That’s changed, he said, as American culture and congregations have become more diverse.
“A lot of congregations have realized that they are now on a mission field,” he said.
Mandes said churches will continue to assist immigrants, even if Congress puts reform on hold.
“For me, it is not about politics. It is about the Great Commission and the great commandment,” he said.
Only 15 percent of pastors say members of their congregations are hurt by the immigration system. Strong disagreement that their church is negatively affected by the current immigration system is highest among pastors in the Northeast (57 percent) and Midwest (49 percent) compared to the South (42 percent) and West (33 percent). About a quarter (27 percent) say immigration reform would help church members.
"Many Protestant churches are predominantly composed of one ethnic group," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research. "Therefore, many pastors do not have immigrant members, much less members who are personally affected by the current immigration system."
Mainline pastors are more likely to support reform (82 percent) and to say reform would help church members (42 percent). By contrast, 54 percent of Evangelical pastors support reform, while 21 percent say it would help church members.
About one in five Hispanic Americans (22 percent) identify themselves as Protestants, according to the Pew Hispanic survey.
Eddie Poole, pastor of MJLife Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., said he became involved in immigration reform because it affects a family in his church.
The couple were separated for more than a year after the husband left the country as part of the process of getting legal status. They were reunited after Poole and other church member wrote letters and called public officials and gave interviews to the media on the couple’s behalf.
Poole said that the Bible teaches Christians that they should treat immigrants fairly. He hopes Congress will make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get legal status.
“As Christians we are supposed to be kind to immigrants and widows and orphans,” he said. “Part of the problem is that the immigration process is not clear cut. That is not being kind to immigrants.”
Researchers found pastors support reform even if it does not affect their congregation, said McConnell.
Pastors who disagree when asked if the immigration system has “negatively impacted” church members are quite open to reform. Of that group, nearly six in 10 (58 percent) say they still support reform.
(Methodology: This phone survey, conducted Sept. 4-19, used a stratified random sample of Protestant churches. The sample was stratified by church size and denominational groups. Up to six calls were made to reach a sampled phone number. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational groups of Protestant churches. The completed sample is 1,007 phone interviews and provides 95 percent confidence the sampling error does not exceed +3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.)
Bob Smietana is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.