Evangelicals, Southern Baptists react to President Obama”s executive order on immigration reform

President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration reform, including granting legal status to millions of people currently in the country illegally, was detrimental to the efforts of Southern Baptists who for years have championed comprehensive and compassionate immigration legislation. SBC leaders in the church and Congress said the president’s unilateral, and arguably unconstitutional, action hurts those he claims to be helping and alienates those who echoed his calls for reform.

In a presidential address Thursday evening, Nov. 20, Obama highlighted his three steps for addressing immigration reform: more security personnel on the borders, simplification of visa applications for high tech workers, and legalization of undocumented immigrants already in the country. The president officially signed the order Friday during a visit to Las Vegas.

Since 2012 a collaborative effort among ministry leaders representing about 68 million American evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, has been pressing Congress for immigration legislation grounded in biblical principles. Although representing socio-political ideological extremes, the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) coalesced on this one issue. But Obama’s actions could jeopardize that tenuous relationship.

“Acting unilaterally threatens that consensus, and is the wrong thing to do,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in an op-ed for TIME magazine posted Thursday afternoon. “Even those who support broad executive action (including many friends of mine) acknowledge that the actions won’t solve the problem, only a legislative solution will.”

Tim Moore, pastor of Walk Worthy Baptist Church in Austin and Texas Mobilizer for EIT, is also frustrated, telling the TEXAN Thursday before the president’s address, “Am I eager for the president to do something? Yes and no.”

The failure of the House of Representatives to take up a bipartisan bill passed last year by the Senate concerned Tim Moore. He believed Obama, impatient with Congressional inaction, was acting out of conviction but said an executive order only provides a temporary and insufficiently comprehensive solution and shifts undocumented immigrants from one state of limbo to another.

“It’s unconscionable that Congress won’t act,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-TX, said the frustration is understandable but criticized the Senate bill for its lack of border security and appropriation mechanisms that can only be initiated by the House. He said Congress will be in a better position to pass legislation in January when the new legislators are sworn in, but Obama’s executive order interferes with that process. Both houses will have Republican majorities.

“The Republicans have said that they want to demonstrate that they can govern and that they want to find areas where they can work together with the White House,” Russell Moore wrote. “Why not give them the opportunity to do so?”

In an interview with the TEXAN before Obama’s speech, Flores admitted “hypertension” over the subject of amnesty causes some Republican House members to reject sound legislation, especially since “amnesty” means different things to different people. To some, Flores explained, anything short of “rounding up” the undocumented immigrants and sending them back to their home countries is amnesty.

But that, Flores said, is not a practical solution. The reforms he would outline in legislation include: a secure border certified as such by an agency not affiliated with the federal government; an enforced visa entry/exit tracking system (40 percent of all illegal immigrants are people who overstayed their visa); a guest worker program; full implementation of E-verify for employers and stiff fines for those who fail to use it to verify legal status of potential employees; a long and rigorous path to legal residency—not citizenship—for those willing to meet the standards; and similar standards for those brought to the U.S. as minors by their parents. The latter group could earn citizenship, Flores said, because he feels it inappropriate to hold the children responsible for “the sins of the fathers,” adding, “That’s not amnesty.”

But if Obama grants immediate legal status to the estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants in the country, the act would not only be unlawful but unfair, critics contend. And the battle over the constitutionality of his action could stymie the legislative progress.

In a statement released Thursday evening, Texas Attorney General and Governor-elect Greg Abbott said, “Following tonight’s pronouncement, I am prepared to immediately challenge President Obama in court, securing our state’s sovereignty and guaranteeing the rule of law as it was intended under the Constitution.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry called the president’s decision a bad policy that will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Flores, who was elected Nov. 18 to head the Republican Survey Committee, said the executive order complicates the process of creating immigration reform legislation, something the 114th Congress is sure to take up. By granting legal status to people who entered or stayed in the country illegally, Flores said, the president disregards the efforts of those who came here through lawful channels.

Additionally, a sudden influx of millions of new workers competing for jobs in a sluggish economy hurts U.S. citizens, which is problematic in its own right.

Thus, Christians face a tension between offering mercy to lawbreakers and demanding their accountability, but SBC pastors and policy makers affiliated with the EIT and lawmakers in Congress argue the two ideas are not diametrically opposed and can work for the good of all involved.

Tim Moore’s role with the EIT has given him the opportunity to hear and be heard on the matter of immigration in congregations across the state. Most evangelicals admit Congress needs to enact reform, he said, but their ideas on what should be done are informed more by emotion and politics than Scripture.

As a pastor and EIT spokesman, his message is the same—Scripture demands Christians treat all people with the dignity afforded them as image bearers of God. That is manifested in government policies that offer assistance to those who merit consideration for a visa, permanent residency or citizenship while deporting everyone else.

Although sympathetic with the plight of undocumented immigrants, Flores and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-TX, both members of SBC churches, said the roles of the church and government are distinct and not interchangeable.

“There is a common mistake being made by caring Christians who think the duty of a government and the duty of a Christian individual are the same. They are exceedingly different,” Gohmert wrote in a statement about the role of Christians in the immigration debate.

“The Bible says we are to help those in need,” Flores said. “The question is, “Who is the ‘we’?”

While Christians and churches should assist “the least of these,” including undocumented immigrants, the institutions established to create and enforce law are bound by their pledge to uphold the law even if it seems unpopular at the time to do so, Flores said. Without the enforcement of the law, all citizens would suffer.

Gohmert agrees.

“The government must follow its own laws fairly and impartially so lawlessness is not encouraged,” he wrote. “A Christian should love his neighbor. A government should require neighbors to comply with its laws.”

Russell Moore emphasized the need for Christians to rise above the political fray.

“I pray that our churches will transcend all of this posing and maneuvering that we see in Washington,” he wrote. “Whatever our political disagreements, we ought to continue to stand with [immigrants], and to see to it that the immigrants among us are welcomed and loved. Whatever happens in the White House, our churches must press on with ministry and mission.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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