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What Does the New Statement on Immigration Reform Actually Mean?
What Does the New Statement on Immigration Reform Actually Mean?

More than 100 evangelical leaders, including Focus on the Family's Jim Daly, signed a statement listing the values that they say should guide immigration policy. The Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform is not a policy proposal with specific recommendations, however. Instead, the statement lays out broad parameters that the signers believe should guide the debate over immigration reform.

The statement calls for a bipartisan solution to immigration reform that meets six criteria:

  1. Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  2. Protects the unity of the immediate family
  3. Respects the rule of law
  4. Guarantees secure national borders
  5. Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  6. Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents

Of these, only the sixth—the path to citizenship—is likely to touch on anything controversial. The other five principles represent values that the vast majority of Americans believe should drive immigration reform.

Third Way, a think tank that focuses on bipartisan policy solutions, studied their own polls on immigration to see what messages worked best on the public. Third Way's Richard Schmechel and Rachel Laser used the results to write a how-to memo on how advocates of immigration reform should frame their arguments.

"There is a tested message on immigration that works with the vast majority of Americans, including a strong majority of Hispanics. That message is tough, fair, and practical," Schmechel and Laser wrote. "Tough means being tough on border security and workplace enforcement; Fair means FAIR TO TAXPAYERS [sic]; [and] Practical means finding a realistic and lasting way to restore the rule of law."

These results fit with 2010 poll results by Public Religion Research Institute. The PRRI poll asked what values should guide immigration reform. PRRI found that the most important were the values listed in the Evangelical Statement of Principles: the rule of law and promoting national security (88 percent), ensuring fairness to taxpayers (84 percent), protecting the dignity of every person (82 percent), and keeping families together (80 percent). Much lower was "Following the biblical example of welcoming the stranger," at 53 percent.

The statement supports "tough, fair, and practical" immigration reform. Listed before a call for a path to citizenship or legal status are statements on the rule of law, border security, and fairness to taxpayers. 

In practice, however, it is difficult to see how the buzzwords translate into policy terms. The statement on border security, for example, seems clear, until one asks what it means to "guarantee" it. For some, a border must be completely secure before a path to citizenship can be opened. For others, the guarantee would mean simply a greater effort by the federal government to stop illegal immigration.

The vaguest principle, however, may be the call for a policy that ensures "fairness to taxpayers." Public opinion views the current immigration situation as unfair because they see immigrants using social services that are financed by taxpayers. "Taxpayer" means "citizen" in this view, but immigrants are also taxpayers, albeit mostly in sales tax or by paying rent to property owners. The American social safety net is, in the view of the public, for Americans only.

The most controversial portion of the statement is the call for a path to legal status. The document does not specify citizenship as the only goal. Instead, it wants a "path toward legal status and/or citizenship" (emphasis added). Short of citizenship, immigrants could earn a legal status that would allow them to work legally, remain permanently, receive social services, and participate in many parts of civic life such as serving in the military.

The statement does not call for all immigrants who are here illegally to be allowed on this path, something immigrants must qualify for, but the statement does not say what qualifications should be included. Given the other principles, it would likely mean some type of penalty. The "rule of law" is often code for "no amnesty" for those who are already here illegally—immigrants would need to pay a fine or face some other penalty before obtaining permanent legal status.

Together, the principles listed in the statement provide broad parameters for immigration policy.  Translating those principles into actual laws and regulations remains a thorny task for lawmakers.

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