Washington — Religious conservatives bared their internal struggles over immigration Thursday at an unusually frank public debate, demonstrating that the most powerful faction of the Republican Party is as divided as the party itself on the issue.
Torn between the values of Christian compassion and a disapproval of lawbreaking — with an undercurrent of angst about cultural change — social conservatives and their political allies squared off in the face of internal polls that show their “values voters” overwhelmingly prefer strong border security.
The Family Research Council, which sponsored Thursday’s debate, surveyed its members earlier this month and found that by a ratio of 9 to 1, they believe illegal immigrants should be “detected, arrested and returned to their country of origin.”
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The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of Sacramento, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he was concerned by a new Pew Hispanic Center poll released Wednesday that found two-thirds of white evangelicals consider new immigrants to be a burden and a threat to American culture.
“My message to the white evangelicals would be, Hispanic immigrants resonate more with your values than many other constituencies or groups,” Rodriguez said. “They are God-fearing, hard-working, family-loving people. And if that doesn’t look a lot like the Joneses and Smiths of Alabama and Arkansas and Michigan, other than the color of their skin, I don’t know what would.”
As with the larger national immigration debate, evangelical leaders could be more willing than the public they represent to offer earned citizenship to the 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.
Dr. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination representing millions of white evangelicals, announced at the meeting his endorsement of a bipartisan immigration plan in the Senate that is backed by most Democrats, some Republicans and President Bush. The program includes a way for many illegal immigrants living in the country today to become permanent residents and ultimately U.S. citizens.
“As citizens of the United States, we have an obligation to support the government and the government’s laws for conscience sake,” Land wrote in an essay on the Baptist Press Web site explaining his position. “As citizens of the Lord’s heavenly Kingdom … we also have a divine mandate to act redemptively and compassionately toward those who are in need. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12).”
Religious conservatives usually lead the Republican charge on social issues from same-sex marriage to abortion. But they have been quiet on immigration.
“We are wrestling with it,” said Connie Mackey, head of government affairs for the Family Research Council. “We have varying positions within the organization, but I think the bottom line if we were to take any position, it would be that we’ve got to do something to pay attention to the laws that are on the books right now, and then the second part is the hardest part: what to do about those people who are here now.”
Mackey said no consensus exists other than to be “compassionate but firm.”
Restrictionists battled expansionists in the free-wheeling debate. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a firebrand Colorado Republican, demanded that Bush send the military to the Mexican border.
“The president of the United States, tomorrow if he wanted to, could end this problem,” Tancredo said. “He certainly has the power to apply military assets.”
Tancredo said there were some Republicans in Congress who are “probably glad to see the price of gas go up so we can talk about something else besides immigration.”
John O’Sullivan, editor-at-large of the conservative National Review, accused Catholic bishops of falling under the sway of secular multiculturalists. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which strongly backs legalization, is “uncomfortably close to the libertarians who view the United States not as a community but simply as a place,” O’Sullivan said.
But Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. — who converted to Catholicism in 2002 — staunchly defended the Senate plan he helped craft.
“Any one of you in this room today, if you knew anybody that was in a tough position, if their family member was sick or dying or they were hurting or they needed a cup of water or they needed food, not one of you right now wouldn’t do that exactly for those individuals even if they were illegal undocumented immigrants,” Brownback said. “You know you would do that. You know that nothing would stop you from doing that.
“We all came from somewhere,” he said. “If I have no option to feed my family in any legitimate way, we can see ourselves maybe jumping across the line ourselves. … I don’t want to face my maker without every day, every minute, having tried to have done what I think is the moral thing to do, even if it’s politically difficult.”
Laura Esquivel, director of issues marketing for the liberal People for the American Way, said after the debate, “They’re in a real pickle here.”
She found it odd that the Family Research Council was refusing to take the position endorsed by 90 percent of its own members. “They’re in the same conundrum as the Republican Party,” she said. “They’ve made all these inroads, or have tried to, in the Hispanic community, and it is going up in smoke over this issue.”