Do conservatives have any compassion left? As House Republicans wrestle with whether to reform our nation’s immigration laws, that is the question evangelical leaders like myself are asking.
After recently releasing long awaited standards outlining their policy priorities, many assumed this represented a firm commitment by Republican House leadership to tackle an issue that had long vexed their party and our nation. We were then stunned to hear the whispers of growing opposition within the caucus. Speaker Boehner surprised us by declaring progress on the issue this year to be “difficult.”
What had changed?
The answer, they admit, is politics. Many GOP House members are concerned about the political ramifications of an immigration overhaul. They are worried about the reaction from voters, especially their primary voters, in districts that have been gerrymandered to be ideologically conservative. They don’t want to risk distracting public attention away from their relentless attacks on Obamacare and all the difficulties created by the implementation of a major expansion of health care insurance. They claim to not trust President Obama or his willingness to enforce immigration laws, despite the fact that his administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other. They are perilously close to letting their strong dislike for the President blind them to the realities of human suffering perpetuated by an immigration system that no longer meets the needs of our nation.
What hasn’t changed is the moral crisis created by the failures of the status quo. Every day millions of families live in fear of their lives being irreparably disrupted or dislocated because of one member’s immigration status. Human beings searching for economic opportunity, but frustrated by a complicated and unresponsive visa or legal guest worker system, die as they venture across vast desert expanses, making a desperate attempt to find a better life. Undocumented workers, many of whom are women, have their rights and dignity violated on a daily basis because they have little recourse against their employers. Young people, who came here as children, live as “illegals” in the only country they have ever known as home.
It has become abundantly clear that immigration reform is the moral test of our politics.
Evangelicals have been at the forefront of the push to fix our broken immigration system. Long considered an important political constituency, our engagement has drawn significant attention for its breadth and depth. We aren’t motivated by political calculations or economic self-interest, but by the call of Jesus who audaciously proclaims that the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, including immigrants, the biblical “stranger,” reflects how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). We stand outside of a broken political system, urging our leaders to prioritize the common good. We believe that what is morally right should never be nakedly sacrificed for political gain.
These convictions are inspired by our faith but they are also rooted in our experiences. Take, for example, the now very typical story of Mike McClenahan, the senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Southern California. After baptizing children whose parents live in fear of deportation, and building outreach ministries to immigrants in his community, he realized that the gospel’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” required advocating for immigration reform.
Thankfully we aren’t voices crying out in the wilderness. Public opinion is squarely on our side. According to a recent CNN poll, 54% of Americans believe a path should be created that allows undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship. Previous polls have demonstrated that evangelicals support comprehensive immigration reform over an enforcement only approach by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. A majority of voters in GOP swing districts embrace taking action. Business leaders and law enforcement officials have also been prominent proponents of revamping current policies.
Speaker Boehner and Republicans in the House of Representatives face a serious quandary. Do they pass the moral test by following the will of the American people in finding common sense solutions that reform our immigration laws? Or do they fail to uphold their responsibilities as public servants by letting politics triumph over people?
We have arrived at a critical moment of significant moral importance. As I often remind legislators and pastors alike, the policy debate is over. It is just a matter of time before immigration reform is enacted. The only questions left to decide are how much more suffering we will tolerate as a country and how many more families we will tear apart because our leaders refuse to put people before politics.
Immigration reform can be the great exception to the dysfunction that has come to define Washington. This is the chance that conservatives need to show the nation they have not forgotten how to be compassionate.
Jim Wallis is the President and Founder of Sojourners. He is the author of On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.