By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
In advance of President Obama's and the Democrats' coming push for immigration reform, support for so-called comprehensive reform that would include a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the United States is building among a surprising constituency: conservative religious activists.
The effort includes not only socially conservative groups that have partnered with Democrats on other issues in the past—like the National Association of Evangelicals and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—but also more staunchly conservative groups and figures closely aligned with the Republican Party.
"There was this rhetoric in the last immigration debate that was, frankly, harsh," says Mathew Staver, dean of the law school at Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell. "We need to understand that we are still a nation of immigrants, and we need to bring people out of the shadows and make them legal."
Staver, who is leading the effort to bring conservative evangelicals and other religious conservatives on board for comprehensive immigration reform, says he's motivated by biblical principles regarding the treatment of foreigners and by a desire to build bridges between the "pro-family" movement and growing ethnic constituencies. But the campaign may wind up dividing religious conservatives, some of whom helped lead the charge against George W. Bush's failed attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.
"Many of our members oppose comprehensive amnesty because of their faith," says Colleeen Holmes, executive director of Eagle Forum, the conservative group founded by Phyllis Schlafly. "But this is really about conservatism versus liberalism, and conservatism says you need rule of law." The Eagle Forum opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Staver can hardly be described as a liberal. Besides his Liberty University role, he heads Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group whose website describes it as "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family."
After religious conservatives splintered among various Republican presidential candidates in the 2008 Republican primaries, Staver organized a new coalition, the Freedom Federation, to promote unity in the movement and to build bridges to constituencies that then candidate Barack Obama was courting but that had traditionally been neglected by conservative Christians: minorities and young people.
Now, Staver is trying to build support among Freedom Federation members for comprehensive immigration reform. Part of his goal is to bring Hispanics into the conservative Christian political fold. "The future of the conservative movement is at stake in the debate about immigration reform," says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who has been helping Staver lobby conservative evangelical leaders on immigration.
At a recent coalition meeting in Washington, Staver had former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee discuss his immigration views, which have been criticized as soft by many conservatives, with dozens of representatives from religious conservative groups. "Huckabee was attacked in the presidential race because he didn't want to remove educational benefits for the children of illegal immigrants," Staver says. "But that's a biblical concept—you don't punish the child for what his parents did."
A follow-up meeting in is planned for next month in Washington.
Some conservative faith-based activists welcome Staver's effort. "I am hopeful that we will adopt the position that the Freedom Federation will adopt," says Rick Tyler, who runs a new group that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched to mobilize religious conservatives. "America is and was and will be and always should be a nation of immigrants."
Some Freedom Federation members, however—like Eagle Forum—remain strongly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. Others, like Family Research Council Action, are still determining their position.