Divided by politics and policy, the Senate failed to pass immigration legislation before its April recess. Evangelicals have likewise struggled to reach consensus, as leaders articulated different moral priorities.

Evangelical groups including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), World Relief, and the World Evangelical Alliance, sent a letter April 5 to President Bush and members of Congress advocating immigration reforms. The letter did not endorse a specific Senate proposal. But the recommendations bore similarities to bills that would create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants and allow some already living in the United States to apply for citizenship.

One day after the letter was released, Senate leaders announced they had compromised on a bill to separate about 11 million illegal immigrants into three categories.

Those living in the United States more than five years could work for six years and apply for permanent residency if they remained employed, had background checks, learned English, and paid fines and back taxes. Those living in the United States two to five years would have to return home within the next three years to apply for a temporary work visa. Those here less than two years, about 1 million people, would have to leave the country and apply for visas to return.

The Senate compromise also would allow for a new program for 1.5 million temporary agriculture workers. Finally, the bill calls for surveillance cameras and other technology to monitor the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.

Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of NHCLC, remained confident the Senate could finish a deal by the end of April. Rodriguez told CT that if Congress does not move on a bill, "there is going to be a lot of trepidation out there. There will be so much instability for these immigrant families."

Any Senate bill will have to reconcile with the House's bill. Passed in December, 2005, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act calls for a fence across 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and would make crossing the border illegally a felony. (House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist issued a statement Tuesday saying they do not want a final bill that would "make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.")

"We are content with the fact that the Senate compromise is a world of difference from the House's bill," Rodriguez said. He added that it would still be difficult to deport immigrants here less than two years.

Article continues below

Jenny Hwang, World Relief's coordinator for advocacy and policy, said they could not support the compromise because there are many families who have one member undocumented.

"We want them to look beyond that and look at this as a moral issue," Hwang said. "This would tear apart families. It's not about how long they've been here, but about the particular situations."

Wisdom of Solomon

Some conservative groups active on many political questions have so far refrained from joining the immigration fray. Focus on the Family told CT it would not take a stance on immigration. Family Research Council (FRC) recently surveyed its constituents on immigration. But Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs, said FRC has not yet decided whether to support any particular bill.

"The issues we're known for are life, marriage, and judicial activism," McClusky said. "This is all a learning process for us."

FRC president Tony Perkins did, however, issue a letter to supporters criticizing the April 10 immigration rally in Washington, D.C. "'La Marcha,' as it was called, was a rally for 'immigration rights,'" he wrote. "It's hard to maintain that anyone has a right to violate U.S. laws. Although their signs and speeches were mostly in Spanish, crowds were non-violent and most took care not to antagonize law-abiding Americans by waving Mexican flags in their faces."

Mat Staver, president of the Orlando-based organization Liberty Counsel, made clear that the Senate compromise would not be acceptable. He said the Senate bill would only provide amnesty and weaken U.S. immigration laws, as did past attempts at immigration reform. In 1986, about 3 million people obtained amnesty after the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Congress passed another immigration reform law in 1996.

"By having these amnesty proposals, it really is making immigration a sham," Staver said. "It sets America up for potential attack from the outside by people who realize they can come into America illegally, break the law, and we're going to forgive them."

Richard Land, president of Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, agrees that any policy solution must start with border security, as in the House bill. But he told CT that he spoke with President Bush about immigration in March and said the Senate must also include a guest worker program.

"Then they can give people an opportunity to earn a way to permanent residence, but not amnesty," Land said.

Article continues below

The National Association of Evangelicals did not sign the April 5 letter. But Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs, did attend the press conference.

"When we have such differences of opinions in the constituency, it doesn't make sense for NAE to take a stance," Cizik said. "Members of Congress are having a difficult time of arriving at an appropriate policy and so are evangelicals, because it's not easy."

Cizik said any bill must have a balance between a legal avenue for citizenship and border control.

"It'll take the wisdom of Solomon in itself to come up with a bill that will reconcile with the House bill," he said. "Current policy is broken, and I think the members of the Senate and the House should fix it."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's full coverage on issues related to immigration is collected on our site.

The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference has statements on immigration at the bottom of its homepage.

World Relief has its statements "Call For Comprehensive Immigration Reform" and "World Relief Encourages Churches to Push Immigration Reform" on its website.

The letter sent by evangelical leaders (including Christianity Today editor David Neff) to President Bush is available from the Washington Post, which also covered the divide among evangelicals over immigration.

The Washington Times also reported on the issue, saying evangelicals support citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Christianity Today's Weblog has been compiling articles on the religious aspects to the immigration debate.

The immigration bill passed by the House, The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 is available from the Library of Congress's Thomas site.