Evangelicals and Immigration – Sea Change in the Making?

path to comprehensive immigration reform appears to have been smoothed by the
2012 presidential election. It was widely perceived that the Republican Party’s
tough stand on immigration, supporting a policy of “self-deportation,”[1]
limited their appeal and cost votes in key states. At the same time, a crucial
component of the Republican coalition, evangelical Protestants, have been
making efforts to push immigration reform efforts as well for several years now.
For instance, The Evangelical Immigration Table[2],
a coalition of 150+ evangelical leaders, issued a post-election letter to
President Obama calling for comprehensive immigration reform within the first
92 days of his second term (“92” is significant as the number of times the
Hebrew word for immigrant “ger
appears in the Bible).[3]  This would appear to portend great change in
the American political landscape.

of the crucial lingering questions, then, is what evangelicals in the pews
think of immigrants and immigration reform and what shapes their attitudes? It
is no surprise that white, born-again respondents to a recent survey by PRRI have
a distinctive outlook on immigrants and immigration, which the attached Figure
shows. In essence, evangelicals are more concerned about threats to an “American
way of life” and are more in favor of deportation or self-deportation as policy
options (thought not in huge majorities). White evangelicals are also more
likely than other Americans to believe that the growing number of newcomers from
other countries threatens American values and way of life (58% vs. 40%).
Finally, a survey list experiment designed to uncover concerns about the
changing racial and ethnic makeup of America also found that white, born-again
Christians were more likely than whites overall to be worried or bothered by
the U.S. becoming a majority-minority nation.[4]
Half (50%) of white, born-again Christians agreed with the statement: “The idea of America
where most people are not white bothers me.” In contrast, among whites overall,
fewer than one-third (31%) agreed with this statement, and among all Americans
fewer than 1-in-4 (23%) agreed.

evangelicals are less likely to report having friends who were born outside the
US, but this factor plays little role in shaping evangelicals views toward
immigrants or immigration (in logistic regression models of the variables
listed in the figure). This evidence helps us to focus our attention on
evangelicals’ values and worldview, which by this logic should be the most
significant determinants of their immigration attitudes. It turns out that is
true, but the problem is that the two dominant values at play in this debate
are cross-cutting. Those who believe enforcing the rule of law is more
important are more likely to think that, for instance, the American way of life
needs to be protected from foreign influence. On the other hand, those who
believe that welcoming the stranger is more important believe the opposite –
that the American way of life is not under threat. As of this polling snapshot,
more evangelicals believe that enforcing the rule of law is extremely important
(41%) than believe that welcoming the stranger is extremely important (25%). And
few evangelicals (14%) believe that welcoming the stranger is more important than
enforcing the rule of law. So, here’s the rub: this set of values probably
leaves evangelicals resistant to opposing the current law and, thus, opposed to
immigration reform. Perhaps the only way to garner broad evangelical support is
to change the law first, which would allow compassion for the undocumented to
mesh with the law of the land.

the cross-cutting effect of the two primary values in play, it is no surprise
that those who have heard their clergyperson speak out about immigration do not
have systematically different views toward immigrants and immigration. If those
clergy are following the scripts set out by the Evangelical Immigration Table,
which emphasize the rule of law and
welcoming the stranger, then we shouldn’t expect evangelicals in the pews to
change their minds anytime soon.

Moreover, befitting their voting behavior, more
evangelicals remain attached to the Republican Party. Evangelicals trust the
Republican Party to deal with immigration and illegal immigration by a 2-1
margin (52-30% and 52-29%, respectively). Thus, the value conflict evangelicals
hold is compounded by adherence to political figures and political beliefs who
are only grudgingly supportive of immigration reform. Evangelical elites have
taken a position in favor of comprehensive immigration reform for several years
now and that shift may have given Republicans some cover. But, if there is
going to be comprehensive immigration reform, we might give more credit to high
ranking Republicans who read the tea leaves after November, 2012 and have since
staked out positions in favor of a path to citizenship.

Originally published here.



[3] According to Wheaton
political scientist Amy Black in her op-ed: 

[4] For more discussion of
a list experiment, please see an earlier post of mine:

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