At a time when the prospects for immigration overhaul seem most dim, supporters have unleashed a secret weapon: a group of influential evangelical Christian leaders.
Normally on the opposite side of political issues backed by the Obama White House, these leaders are aligning with the president to support an overhaul that would include some path to legalization for illegal immigrants already here. They are preaching from pulpits, conducting conference calls with pastors and testifying in Washington - as they did last Wednesday.
"I am a Christian and I am a conservative and I am a Republican, in that order," said Matthew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a conservative religious law firm. "There is very little I agree with regarding President Barack Obama. On the other hand, I'm not going to let politicized rhetoric or party affiliation trump my values, and if he's right on this issue, I will support him on this issue."
Goodstein credited "the work of politically active Hispanic evangelical pastors, who have forged friendships with non-Hispanic pastors in recent years while working in coalitions to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage." She let Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention warn conservatives not to drive away Hispanics:
"I've had some older conservative leaders say: 'Richard, stop this. You're going to split the conservative coalition,' " Dr. Land continued. "I say it might split the old conservative coalition, but it won't split the new one. And if the new one is going to be a governing coalition, it's going to have to have a lot of Hispanics in it. And you don't get a lot of Hispanics in your coalition by engaging in anti-Hispanic anti-immigration rhetoric."
....Goodstein saw room for optimism (the same kind the Times has been finding for years):
The support of evangelical leaders is not yet enough to change the equation. But they could mobilize a potentially large constituency of religious conservatives, an important part of the Republican base better known for lobbying against abortion and same-sex marriage. They already threaten the party's near unity on immigration.
Although other religious leaders have long favored immigration overhaul - including Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and Muslims - the evangelicals are crucial because they have the relationships and the pull with Republicans.
Goodstein described the liberal proposals in benign terms while labeling more conservatives:
Advocates of a comprehensive new immigration law want to establish a path to citizenship that would allow illegal immigrants to register with the government, pay a fine, undergo a background check, prove they can speak English and only then get in line to apply for permanent legal residency. Those not interested in permanent residency could become legal temporary workers.
Opponents call this approach amnesty. "I think there's a need to reform the system, but I don't support amnesty," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public interest law firm that plans to file an amicus brief in support of Arizona's immigration law.
To show how little has changed, this story hews very close to a Times story by Neela Banerjee that appeared on May 8, 2007: "New Coalition of Christian Seeks Changes at Borders ." The lead:
A new coalition of more than 100 largely evangelical Christian leaders and organizations asked Congress on Monday to pass bills to strengthen border controls but also give illegal immigrants ways to gain legal residency.
Richard Land also made an appearance in that piece, standing alongside Sen. Ted Kennedy pushing for immigration reform. Over three years later, both Land and the Times are still pushing.
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