Advocates at World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, can usually expect a warm greeting from large evangelical groups wielding clout in the halls of Congress.

But this year, they're getting a downright chilly reception to one of their priority agenda items: immigration reform.

As Congress grapples with legislation regarding an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, the nation's most powerful conservative Christian organizations have been watching from the sidelines. This occurs despite decades of evangelical initiative to make America a hospitable haven for religious and political refugees.

The search to explain the silence leads through several layers of reasoning. For starters, the Christian right says it has other issues at the moment, such as the confirmation of conservative judges and the battle against same-sex marriage. Beyond that, some suspect evangelicals don't want to appear soft on lawbreakers of any kind. And on a level that plumbs the depths of what it means to bear Christian witness, evangelicals confide they're still struggling as a community to determine the right thing to do.

Among Southern Baptists, for instance, "there's no consensus about what to do about the [illegal immigrants] who are already here or about how we would allow legal immigration," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which articulates public policy positions for the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists "see a basic distinction between people who are refugees, who are in fear of losing their life and home … and those who are coming over primarily for economic reasons and are not abiding by the immigration laws." Because mass deportation "isn't realistic," Land says, the denomination needs to wrestle longer with what to do.

Evangelicals on the immigration front lines say time is running out. Near Tucson, Ariz., Maryada Vallet travels the desert in a pickup truck, stopping to not only feed undocumented border crossers, but wash their blistered feet. It's a gesture from biblical accounts of what Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper.

Such inspired volunteer work, warns World Relief staff attorney Amy Bliss, could lead to federal prosecution if a bill passed in December by the U.S. House of Representatives becomes law.

"Anyone who believes" in the biblical story of the gentile who stopped to help a wounded man, Vallet says, "should be outraged that … the government is making it a crime to be a Good Samaritan."

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Soon the U.S. Senate is expected to start reviewing the House-passed bill in committee. Liberal religious activists say evangelical participation could make the difference between success and failure. "To have the evangelical voice there [advocating] has been particularly important to this administration, which listens to them," says C. Richard Parkins, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries for the Episcopal Church U.S.A., a mainline Protestant denomination with a liberal bent. "They have access to leadership that we've not had access to."

Yet despite appeals for help from evangelicals at Baltimore-based World Relief and Arlington, Va.-based Jubilee Campaign, the faith's political heavy hitters have kept mum on immigration. Amber Hildebrand, a spokesperson for the Washington-based Family Research Council, explains: "It's not that we don't think [immigration policy] is important. There have just been other issues the FRC has chosen to focus on." Colorado-based Focus on the Family spokesperson Gwen Stein gives the same reason for her group's reticence to take a stand.

The National Association of Evangelicals hasn't taken a position on immigration since 1985. At that time, as President Reagan was ushering in what was in effect an amnesty program for illegal aliens, the NAE pledged "to eliminate the spirit of racism in any of our responses" and "show personal and corporate hospitality to those who seek a new life in our nation."

Led by evangelical organizers at World Relief, 42 national religious groups and 69 local ones signed a statement in October calling for a process to let undocumented immigrants apply for legal status. Signatories ranged from the Union for Reform Judaism to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In Congress, debate hinges largely on whether immigrants who pay a fine and other penalties should be able to then seek legal status. A bill proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would allow for such a process, while President Bush's guest worker proposal would require the undocumented to leave after a designated period. Whether family members should be separated or kept together also looms large as an issue up for grabs.

Evangelicals' hesitancy traces, observers say, to political as much as moral reservations. Evangelicals might be inclined to sympathize with fellow Christians from south of the border who have taken a grave personal risk in order "to support their families back at home," Bliss says, but those views apparently can't survive in public discourse.

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"The rhetoric is considered a liberal issue," Bliss says. "Fear of looking weak or too liberal permeates a lot of the discussion. I think that's the concern."

Evangelical groups, if determined to appear tough on illegal immigration, could endorse the House-approved bill, which provides for a fence along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, though it doesn't address the question of what to do with undocumented immigrants.

But evangelicals who appear unsympathetic toward immigrants run other political risks. They could alienate business interests, that is, political allies in industries known to employ thousands of undocumented workers. They could also run afoul of a growing foreign-born constituency, according to Manuel A. Vasquez, associate professor of religion at the University of Florida and an expert on religion and immigration.

"In many ways, conservatives see immigrants from Latin America are bringing values that they would like to regain: values of family, gender roles that are very well defined, an ethic of hard work," Vasquez says. "Immigrants have values that can convert America and return America to the values of thrift and hard work."

Faced with the specter of political costs no matter where they come down on immigration, leading evangelical groups are opting not to get involved. That means, barring an unexpected change of heart, the road to resolving the fates of some 11 million, mostly Christian immigrants to the United States seems certain to include minimal input from the evangelical conscience. And for evangelical outreach workers, that's distressing.

"We can't just stand by and ignore this issue," Bliss says, "if for no other reason than because the international community is such an important part of the growing church."

Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles on immigration include:

Death Sentence? | Immigration bill could jeopardize asylum seekers, critics say. (March 8, 2005)
Speaking Out
Aliens in Our Midst | Attaining asylum in the land of the free is harder than you'd think—and it may be costing people their lives. (Feb. 10, 2005)
Security Gaffes | Evangelical schools worry over post-9/11 visa rules. (Oct. 08, 2004)
'The Peoples Are Here' | Record immigration pushes American Christians out of their comfort zones. (Feb. 12, 2003)
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Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars. (July 9, 2001)
European Churches Declare Immigrants Are Not 'Potential Criminals' | Petitions submitted to the European Union for more protection, aid. (June 13, 2001)
Separation Anxiety | Haitian immigrants are less welcome than Cubans, but Florida churches are filling the hospitality gap.(April 24, 2000)
Saving Bodies, Rescuing Souls | Chechen Muslims find Salvationist care has compassionate accent. (April 24, 2000)
In Sri Lanka's No Man's Land, Churches Provide Some Hope for Refugees | Christians mobilize to help nearly a million left homeless by Tamil conflict (April 18, 2000)
The Torture Victim Next Door | Hidden victims of religious persecution find refuge in America (Mar. 6, 2000)
Church Aids Refugees Despite Violence | The Catholic church has been a place of refuge and reform for those opposing the Indonesian government. (October 25, 1999)
Churches Reach Out to Refugees | In many cases, the groups are relying on churches to help provide temporary housing, furniture, clothing, language training, and money for rent. (June 14, 1999)