Still, enthusiasm for CIR appears to be greater among national leaders than among evangelicals “in the pews.” Many parishioners have been hostile to immigration reform, angry due to what they see as border breaches and economic impositions, and therefore haven’t yet heeded the calls from national-level leaders to blend justice with mercy in immigration policy. For instance, a recent national survey (the Pew Research Center’s July/August 2010 Religion and Public Life Survey) asked whether immigrants threatened or strengthened American society and the economy, and what priorities should drive immigration policy (i.e., border security, law enforcement and/or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants). Fifty percent of white evangelicals said they see immigrants as a threat. Only 21 percent said they believe immigrants strengthen both the economy and the society.
But what if church attendance, diverse congregations and positive sermons change opinions toward immigrants? As I compared responses around these questions with the national data, I discovered that attending services alone did not affect perceptions. Positive messages did. Of regular churchgoing white evangelicals who said they have heard a positive message from their pastor, the percentage of those who perceive immigrants as a threat dropped significantly from 50.7 percent to 26.1 percent.
Leadership matters. At the same time, however, if evangelical leaders are going to help educate not only their congregations but move the issue along legislatively, they’d do well to understand and address the concerns of the evangelical laity — a population that is not necessarily hostile to undocumented immigrants as people or unsympathetic to their situation, but is nonetheless very skeptical of reforms to immigration policy that provide “amnesty” or anything close to it. Reform that addresses security and the rule of law is more likely to gain traction among evangelicals than reform that avoids such components. For instance, to garner broader-based support, a reform package could include not only a path to citizenship with qualifications, but also options short of citizenship, including a temporary legal status/guest worker.