WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. James Lankford understands the message that evangelical Christian leaders have been delivering on Capitol Hill as they urge lawmakers to approve immigration reform.
He just doesn't agree with one of their main goals.
“There's a Biblical mandate to reach out to those who are the orphans, the widows in their distress, to take care of the stranger in your land,” Lankford said. “But that does not mean citizenship.
“So there is this push of some people that would say, ‘Because we have a moral responsibility to take care of those in need, you also extend to them all these different things.' That's not true with most Southern Baptists.”
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, has some experience with the views of Southern Baptists. He has a master's degree from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he worked for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma for 13 years, much of that as the director of a youth camp.
For the past few years, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have joined coalitions of evangelicals pushing for immigration reform. The latest such group is called the evangelical Immigration Table.
Russell Moore, the new president of the Ethics and Religious Policy Commission, was among the group's leaders who held a news conference and prayer service on Capitol Hill last week on the issue.
Principles of reform
The evangelical Immigration Table has stopped short of endorsing specific legislation and is not pushing the House to pass the bill that was approved last month by the U.S. Senate that mandates tougher border security and offers a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Instead the coalition has embraced a set of principles for bipartisan reform that:
Respects the God-given dignity of every person
Protects the unity of the immediate family
Respects the rule of law
Guarantees secure national borders
Ensures fairness to taxpayers
Establishes a path toward legal status and citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.
Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojurners, said at the news conference, “We call upon this Congress to understand the moral urgency of immigration reform, the urgency of keeping families together, the urgency of those who cannot get critical health care or are at the mercy of criminals, those who are living in the shadows of fear and insecurity. That is urgent for us.”
Moore said he believes his arm of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks for the grassroots of the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But Lankford said no single organization speaks for the membership since Southern Baptist churches and pastors have great autonomy.
Still, Lankford and Moore use similar language in framing the moral dimension of the issue.
“It's a personal issue,” Moore said. “It's one of the reasons that many of the people concerned about this have been on a personal journey toward a change of mind here because they've seen not just abstract issues but real persons, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are being harmed and hurt by a system that is broken.”
Said Lankford: “I firmly believe that every person is created in the image of God, every person has value on the planet, every individual must be respected and honored and they're a valuable person.
“But in Christian life ... reconciliation is a very big deal. And a lot of the push from Southern Baptists and their leadership is: How do these individuals be reconciled, be made right with the law?”
No urgency in House
House Republican leaders have expressed no urgency to pass an immigration bill. And Lankford said the House will not follow the Senate's approach and consider a comprehensive bill that includes elements like border security, guest worker programs and a path to citizenship.
“We feel like it needs to be worked through a piece at a time,” Lankford said.
Moore said he understands the concerns lawmakers have, including the fear that Congress will be considering immigration reform again in the not-so-distant future if it's not done correctly.
“They're concerned that we don't encourage more illegal immigration,” Moore said. “I think that's a valid concern. I think it's fixable. I think we can find a way to address that.
“And they're concerned with how do we make sure we have accountability for people so that they're not simply brought into citizenship without having to earn it. I think it's also a valid concern and has been answered in many of the proposals that have come forward.”
Lankford, who is the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said he has been focusing on “identifying broken things and fixing them ... but not try to create new problems in the process.”
“That is our constitutional mandate. Article 1, Section 8 requires that Congress has a system of naturalization. We don't have a good system of that right now. We've got to be able to resolve that.”