WASHINGTON — I was a stranger and you invited me in.
Evangelicals nationwide are turning their Bibles to Matthew 25:35 and praying that Congress is listening to those words — part of a highly coordinated effort to spur progress on the long unresolved and contentious issue of immigration.
Faith leaders and their congregations have become an unlikely but powerful ally to reform advocates, framing the question over what to do with 11 million unauthorized residents as one of moral compassion and tapping into influence among Republicans to soften opposition to a pathway to citizenship.
"Immigration is an issue that speaks to coming to the aid of the most vulnerable," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, head of the megachurch Northland near Orlando. "We want to develop in our people a heart for those who are disadvantaged and give them a fair shake."
Evangelicals have gotten involved in the issue in recent years, but the current effort is unmatched, including grass roots mobilization, videos and direct appeals to policymakers.
To elevate their cause, the faith leaders, who have come together under the name Evangelical Immigration Table, have begun a campaign called, "I was a Stranger."
It calls for church members to read the 40 verses of Scripture that relate to immigration — Exodus 23:12, for example, calls for resting on the seventh day and allowing the "stranger" or "foreigner" to refresh as well — and pray that legislators take the same Bible-led approach.
"We're not telling people that you have to vote for this candidate, but we're telling people that if you are evangelical Christian, the Bible should be your authority on the topic of immigration," said Matthew Soerens, U.S. church training specialist for World Relief. He said many evangelicals were unaware of the links to immigration in the Bible.
The latest action came Thursday, when a group of religious leaders met with staff at the White House. Many also met privately with senators and representatives, focusing on Republicans who have generally opposed a path to citizenship.
"Evangelical America is the base of the Republican Party," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "We're seeing Republican members of Congress getting support as well as pressure from social conservatives. That's the big difference in this debate, when a member who's on the fence can look to his or her base and say, 'Oh, okay, my folks want me to do this.' "
During the last immigration debate, in 2006 and 2007, surveys showed white evangelicals were more likely than the general population to view immigrants as a threat to U.S. values. New studies and anecdotal evidence shows that has faded, helped by the swelling ranks of Hispanic evangelicals.
With 100 million evangelicals in the United States — that's about a quarter of all voters — a sizable shift in thinking could be, in Noorani's view, "a game changer."
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has shifted from an anti-"amnesty" candidate in 2010 to a centrist in the current debate, pushing an approach that toughens enforcement but also would allow a path to citizenship. Since stepping into the spotlight, Rubio has had private talks with prominent evangelicals such as Ralph Reed.
"He has staked out a position of leadership," said the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., head of Esperanza, a Hispanic faith-based evangelical network. Cortes met Thursday with Rubio and separately with Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, before going to the White House gathering.
Cortes said he's encouraged because Republicans are bending on "earned" citizenship while Democrats are open to guest worker programs their union allies opposed before. "In the past it was very hard to get people to talk," he said. "For the first time I'm enthusiastic because everyone is willing to have a conversation."
The evangelical approach lines up with the bipartisan framework Rubio and seven other senators released late last month.
"It should include appropriate penalties, waiting periods, background checks, evidence of moral character and a commitment to full participation in American society through learning English," Mathew Staver, chairman of the conservative Liberty Counsel, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Times on Tuesday, when a House committee began debate on immigration.
"Yet for our hardworking, undocumented neighbors who aspire to be fully American, it must end with citizenship — not a permanent second-class status. Such a path also reconciles the rule of law in Matthew 25, where the Bible teaches us that by welcoming a stranger, we may be welcoming Jesus: 'I was a stranger and you invited me in.' Whatever we do for the least among us, he teaches, we do for him."
The House hearing underscored wariness many Republicans have toward granting citizenship to law breakers and the challenge in the weeks to come. Still, the tone of the discussion was starkly different from past years — a reflection of the GOP's dismal performance among Hispanic voters last election, but also evangelical sway.
"You hear less of the accusatory things," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who is pushing for comprehensive reform. "The faith community just reminds everybody that you have to follow the rule of law but don't forget this is not cattle. It's what do we do with 10 or 12 million human beings."
Evangelical churches reflect the changing face of the country, with their numbers swelling with Hispanics. There are now about 500,000 Hispanic Southern Baptists, and about 40 percent are undocumented, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
While those people arrived illegally, or overstayed visas, Land said the United States is also to blame for lax enforcement and not meeting labor demands.
"We've had two signs at the border for the last quarter century. One of them says 'No trespassing.' The other says 'Help wanted.' "
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]