Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Evangelical Association, tells Yahoo! News the organization is seeking to rally support for comprehensive immigration reform. The campaign begins with a full-page ad Thursday in Roll Call, a Washington newspaper that covers Congress.
"What we say is: There does need to be some workable system that's put in place to address the situation of people that are already here," Carey said.
The association, which includes members from 40 evangelical denominations, reached consensus on the issue of immigration reform in 2009 — almost two years after President George W. Bush's failed attempts to reform immigration — by focusing on the biblical material that supports immigration. (The group took no official stand on the issue during the last congressional debate.) The group's 2009 resolution on immigration includes several paragraphs citing scriptural authority:
"Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the families of his sons turned to Egypt in search of food," it says. "Joseph, Naomi, Ruth, Daniel and his friends, Ezekiel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all lived in foreign lands. In the New Testament, Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to escape Herod's anger and became refugees in Egypt."
The 2009 resolution calls for a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally but "who desire to embrace the responsibilities and privileges that accompany citizenship."
Thursday's ad, Carey said, calls for reform that "establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents."
Critics on the right have labeled this approach amnesty. The controversy over a path to citizenship was instrumental in the 2007 defeat of the Bush proposal. "We're hoping that the more united voice of evangelicals this year will have an impact" in getting momentum behind comprehensive reform in this Congress, Carey said.
The full-page ad's signatories include Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy section, and Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University School of Law. Those leaders told CNN they would begin lobbying Republican lawmakers on reform. The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the few large evangelical denominations that is not a part of the National Evangelical Association, Carey said.
A 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that frequent churchgoers are more likely to support path-to-citizenship reforms than occasional attendees are.
One possible reason for the new evangelical push on the issue is that immigrants make up a big part of the recent growth in evangelical congregations.
"We have 40 denominations, and in general I think it's fair to say that for most of our members the immigrant congregations are the fastest-growing," Carey said. "Their voices are increasingly being heard within the church."
Such demographic changes are lending new urgency to the NAE's stand on the issue, Carey said. "Congress needs to act, and they need to act now. Every day more and more immigrants are being affected. Just last week, one of our constituents reported to me that one of the key readers in their church was arrested and deported and the church is in a crisis because of that."
The church in question is in Arizona, he added. But this week's ad doesn't mention Arizona's law. "The situation there illustrates the critical need for national action on immigration reform, but our focus is on national action," Carey says.
Arizona's controversial law, which was criticized by President Obama and even some Republicans but remains popular in polls, has again spurred talk of reforming immigration at the national level, and Democrats have released a draft reform bill. But it's tricky politically, especially in an election year. Most Congress watchers think there's no way it will even make it to a floor debate in 2010.