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Religious conservatives want immigration reform

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN
  • Group backs path for illegal immigrants to attain legal status
  • Evangelical congregations reflect diversity of national origin
  • Pastor: "Comprehensive immigration reform unites us"
  • Hispanic pastor warns conservatives to think about their position carefully

Washington (CNN) -- A group of conservative evangelical leaders broke with their political brethren Wednesday, coming to Washington to push the White House and congressional leaders to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path for undocumented immigrants to attain legal status.

Political conservatives have long balked at an immigration policy that includes what they term "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, but the evangelicals see the issue differently.

"A significant part of our churches and denominations are part of the immigrant community so we have a very close connection and a very great interest," Leith Anderson, president of the influential lobbying group National Association of Evangelicals, said Wednesday, " ... but our interest is really rooted in what the bible teaches how we treat people and how we treat particularly people who are aliens or strangers in the land."

Anderson's group last year authored a resolution in favor of reform using biblical immigrants Abraham, Joseph, Naomi, Mary and Jesus. Their examples, the group said, "reveal God's hand in the movement of people and are illustrations of faith and God in difficult circumstances."

"The issue is one that affects us as a congregation," said Rich Nathan, senior pastor at the Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio, noting that his church of 8,500 members includes congregants born in 92 countries. "It's not just an abstraction."

"I'm aware of no other public policy issue that would join together mainline (denominations), Roman Catholic, evangelicals, right and left across the spectrum," Nathan said. "Abortion divides us, gay rights divide us, war and peace divides us, but comprehensive immigration reform unites us."

Mat Staver, director of the Liberty Center for Law and Policy at Liberty University in Falls Church, Virginia, said all the groups represented shared two common goals: border security and a just and compassionate immigration policy.

"We believe there should be a pathway for earned legal status and or citizenship for those seeking to do so," he said.

The group met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol and presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett at the White House after speaking with reporters and supporters at the Capitol Visitors Center.

Richard Land, head of the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention, said the controversial issue must be resolved sooner rather than later.

"I believe the failure to resolve this issue is rending the social fabric of the nation," he said. Passing a piece of legislation on this issue, Land said, "is not nuclear physics. This just takes national will." He added that if a bill comes to the floor on comprehensive immigration reform his group would support it and will help "get it through."

The Rev. Sam Rodriguez, Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference said that a past disconnect between the pulpit and pew "diminishes in respect to rising conservative leaders," and he reminded those leaders to think carefully about their positions.

"Without the Hispanic vote the Republican Party and the conservative movement will need to garnish, in light of my colleagues around me, a miracle of sorts in order to win in Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and eventually Texas," he said.