In some ways, 2010 was a great year for evangelicals who have longed for the church to stand for just and compassionate immigration reform. Many nationally prominent evangelical leaders -- including political conservatives -- spoke up on the biblical call to welcome the stranger. Denominational leaders within the National Association of Evangelicals, building upon their 2009 resolution in support of immigration reform, have spoken up in various settings in the past year. The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land testified before Congress in support of reform, as did Liberty University's Mathew Staver. Popular author Max Lucado told Christianity Today that the immigration issue is one of vital importance to him, and Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels brought the issue to his congregation and introduced President Obama's speech on immigration in July. Even Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, indicated in an interview that he plans to look at the issue, appropriately concerned that "families are being torn apart" by deportation. Given such broad support, The New York Times declared in a front page story that evangelicals were the "secret weapon" for winning immigration reform.
And yet, we haven't won. Families still wait years to be reunited through a backlogged legal system, undocumented immigration persists while legal immigration channels are still woefully inadequate to meet the needs of a growing economy, and about 11 million undocumented immigrants are still in the shadows. Among the still-undocumented are about 2 million individuals brought to the U.S. as children, who might have, with hard work, benefited from the DREAM Act, but their dreams were crushed when the Senate again failed to pass the bill last month.
While evangelical leaders are engaging more boldly and prophetically than ever before, their advocacy has not translated into political victory. While leaders understand the issue well -- recognizing both the biblical mandate for a thoughtful response and the dramatic impact that immigration is having on the church -- most evangelicals in the pews (or theater seats, as the case may be) still do not think of immigration as a biblical issue. Recent research by the Pew Research Center found that just 12 percent of white evangelicals view immigration primarily as a faith issue. Most think about immigration through a political and economic lens -- because they are primarily getting their information from media which focuses on politics and economics -- but few are thinking biblically about this topic about which scripture has so much to say.
For this movement to better reach the evangelical grassroots, we need courageous pastors who are willing to talk about the politically controversial topic of immigration as a biblical issue. Even for those who do not have the political ramifications entirely figured out -- it is a complex topic that requires careful and prayerful consideration -- we cannot withhold biblical truth as it relates to immigrants. Pastors need not necessarily preach a political sermon on the merits of immigration reform, but we ought not to ignore the scores of passages in the Old and New Testaments that mandate how God's people are to relate to the "alien living among you." (Exodus 14:48)
Finally, we need to encourage the younger generation of evangelicals -- my generation -- whom polls suggest are already far more open to this issue than their parents and grandparents. I'm excited to be part of a new media-driven social-action movement -- UnDocumented.tv -- that seeks to inspire and mobilize young evangelicals to champion the needs of immigrants in their churches and communities. Given good information and tools, I believe my generation can help lead the church as a whole to a just, biblically-grounded view of immigration.
Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief and the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).