Why Evangelicals Want Immigration Reform

Bloomberg View , September 11, 2017

When Donald Trump reversed the Obama-era executive order giving legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, he got pushback from religious leaders. Their response illustrates the ways, expected and unexpected, in which immigrants are changing American Christianity.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the go-to religious group for reporters seeking official comment, called the decision “reprehensible.” At least a third of U.S. Catholics are Latino, and one study of Catholic parishes put the number at 40 percent.

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who wants to restrict immigration, charges that bishops were merely acting in their own self-interest. “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches,” Bannon declared in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday, adding, “They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.” Bannon, himself a Catholic, paints a picture of a church in decline that needs a steady flow of newcomers simply to replace its losses.

He’s not wrong about the decline. Despite the large influx of Catholic immigrants, the number of Americans who call themselves Catholics is falling, as is their percentage of the population. The church is losing adherents among Latinos, including immigrants and their children. A quarter of all U.S. Latinos are former Catholics, reports the Pew Center. In its 2016 survey, the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 48 percent of all U.S. Hispanics identified themselves as Catholic, down from 53 percent in 2013; among Latino immigrants, the proportion of Catholics dropped from 63 percent to 59 percent.

Not all the religious support for immigrants can be chalked up to otherwise declining numbers, however. Evangelical Protestantism is healthy, and Trump’s evangelical advisers also lobbied him to extend the safe harbor for the so-called “Dreamers” and expressed chagrin at its demise. A coalition of prominent evangelical groups called the Evangelical Immigration Table is “advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values,” including “a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.”

To liberals who think of evangelical Christians as backward southern whites -- to put it in relatively polite terms -- the pro-immigrant stance may come as a shock. But immigrants and their children are playing an increasingly prominent role in the evangelical world.

It’s a major cultural shift. Unlike the U.S. Catholic Church, whose growth has long been fueled by immigrants, evangelical Protestantism is largely homegrown. And it’s strongest in the South, a region that missed the big waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, immigrant evangelicals are showing up in unexpected places, from converted movie theaters in South L.A., to vacant storefronts in Saluda, South Carolina, to study rooms at Harvard.

“Hispanic Americans are one of the fastest-growing demographics in evangelicalism, surging in Pentecostal and Assemblies of God traditions as well as among Southern Baptists, where a majority of new church plants are now non-white,” reports Christianity Today. Many of these churches’ young leaders include people brought illegally to the U.S. as children, giving their movements strong reasons to lobby to legalize their status.

Meanwhile on college campuses, first- and second-generation Americans often dominate evangelical groups. At elite schools, the influx of Asian evangelicals in particular has led to an upsurge in religious participation on largely secular campuses. Reporting at Princeton two years ago, I was struck by the number of active evangelical Christians I met. How numerous were they? About 10 percent of undergraduates participate in evangelical groups, I was told. While not exactly Liberty University, that’s certainly an increase since my own Princeton days, when evangelical Christians were essentially invisible. (I knew exactly one.)

The next generation of evangelical leaders, in other words, will include many immigrants and children of immigrants. Whatever the long-term consequences of this shift -- and there will undoubtedly be many -- in the short-term we can expect to hear more from immigrant evangelicals. Trump’s action threw the issue to Congress, giving it until the program ends in March to pass legislation. For representatives from the Republican Bible Belt, an evangelical face makes it easier to see a Dreamer not as “one of them” but “one of us.”