De Leon: Evangelicals Are Polarizing the Immigrant Rights Movement

Latin Evangelical Immigration Services

Latinos are a rapidly growing population in Evangelical churches and have led Christian groups to embrace immigration reform. (Photo: Kent Kanouse/flickr)

Latinos are a rapidly growing population in evangelical churches and have led many Christian groups to embrace immigration reform. The groups mean well, but they pose a danger of fracturing the immigrant rights alliance.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, which counts more than 150 influential evangelical leaders among its ranks, is openly making immigration reform a priority. The group came to Washington on Tuesday to release a set of principles for reform meant to spur Congress into action. They had strong words:

Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America. Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at a tragic human cost.

The group calls for a bipartisan immigration solution which treats immigrants with dignity while upholding the rule of law and ensuring national security.

“There are not many things that a group of evangelical leaders this diverse can agree on when it comes to public policy,” Jim Wallis, President and CEO of Sojourners said. “The unity we have found around these principles for comprehensive immigration reform is unprecedented. Many Christians are weary of the political polarization in Washington D.C. these days, and are ready to come together around biblically based and common sense solutions that cut across traditional political boundaries.”

One would think that long-time advocates of immigration reform would welcome the evangelicals—who have powerful allies in Congress—into the movement’s fold. The National Immigration Forum, which has sought “practical solutions for immigrants and for America,” for three decades certainly has.

But the evangelicals are getting push-back from others in immigrant rights movement. Immigration Equality, a national organization fighting for equality under U.S. immigration law for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive individuals has expressed disappointment with National Immigration Forum’s embrace of the Evangelical Immigration Table. In particular, Immigration Equality is alarmed by one fundamentalist organization among the evangelical coalition, Focus on the Family.

“As an organization dedicated to building a coalition for immigration reform that includes all families, we are dismayed by the decision [of National Immigration Forum] to embrace an out-of-step organization like Focus on the Family,” said Rachel B. Tiven, Immigration Equality’s executive director.

“Many religious denominations and people of faith support fully inclusive immigration reform. Focus on the Family, however, is neither a church nor a denomination. It is a divisive political organization with a disturbing history of advocating exclusion – including the exclusion of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people – from the progress of our country. Those exclusionary principles are exactly the opposite of what our immigration movement should be embracing,” Tiven said.

Immigration Equality is concerned that this development will jeopardize LGBT immigrant families whose inclusion in any comprehensive immigration reform effort has long been considered as non-negotiable by leading immigrant advocates and lawmakers. It is a concern I share as a gay foreign-born spouse.

Although the Evangelical Immigration Table has as one of its principles the protection of “the unity of the immediate family,” I expect some, if not most, of these new “allies” not to fight for the dignity and worth of LGBT immigrant families like mine. I expect Focus on the Family and others to insist that LGBT families be thrown under the bus.

As Steve Ralls, Immigration Equality’s communications director points out, Focus on the Family “has been almost singularly focused in attacking LGBT families and women.” He adds that groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have been critical of Focus on the Family’s anti-gay advocacy and have branded the fundamentalist organization as a hate group.

At a time when unity among immigrant advocates is crucial, Focus on the Family and other fringe groups can easily sow discord.

“The organization is polarizing on Capitol Hill and is better known for burning bridges than building them,” Ralls said.  “It is simply, in our view, a strategic blunder on the part of the National Immigration Forum to embrace a group that is so polarizing among lawmakers and families at a time when building consensus and inclusion is so important if we are going to secure reform legislation that helps as many families as possible.”

I am all for coalition-building, especially at a time when so many voices are stifled by money and influence. But fundamentalist groups like Focus on the Family are insidious and dangerous. Rather than help advance comprehensive immigration reform, they will derail the cause.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.