Evangelicals try to bring Biblical views to immigration debate
Border policy is top of mind in the 2024 election cycle
Craig Hudgins posed for a photograph in front of a large RV covered in patriotic slogans and images. “We the People” was scrawled in cursive across the side, with silhouettes of soldiers overlaying an American flag. The Marine Corps veteran drove the eye-catching vehicle at the front of the Take Our Border Back Convoy, which rolled out from Virginia Beach, Va., at the end of January and lumbered about 2,000 miles to the rural Texas border town of Quemado. Leaders call the group “God’s army” and say their mission is to galvanize change at the border through prayer and revival.
Hudgins, who helped organize the caravan, describes himself as an evangelical Roman Catholic and said his faith inspired him to make the journey. “When we go to the border tomorrow,” he told me at a convoy rally outside of Austin, Texas, on Thursday, “we will set out in prayer.”
Voters ranked immigration as the top issue facing the nation in separate polls by Emerson College and Harvard CAPS/Harris in January. A Lifeway Research survey released in 2022 found that most evangelical voters—those who either self-identify as evangelical or agree with traditional evangelical doctrines—say they want an immigration solution that secures the border while providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as minors. Still, priorities vary widely among evangelical voters striving to balance welcoming the stranger with respect for the rule of law.
Tony Beam, who is the public policy director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention and has served in 20 interim pastor roles, said many of the local pastors and church members he works with are frustrated. They want the federal government to stem the record breaking flow of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers before revamping the entire immigration system.
“I think what makes the conversations difficult is the level of frustration over the current situation,” Beam said. “It’s unfortunate that we have a political environment that has been created, in my opinion, by the current administration’s lack of border enforcement.”
He urges Christians to keep two Biblical principles in mind: upholding the law and treating people created in God’s image with dignity.
Welcoming people across the border while disregarding laws already in place isn’t a Biblical position, Beam argued. But, at the same time, frustration with the current crisis isn’t an excuse to turn people into political objects. “Sometimes in the midst of those conversations, we lose the Biblical perspective,” he noted.
Galen Carey is vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, which he describes as a “very broad evangelical umbrella group.” The association represents 40 denominations along with an array of organizations, charities, schools, universities, and missions. Carey said immigrants comprise a growing percentage of many of the association’s member churches’ congregations, and some of these churches worship in languages other than English. NAE members that are ministries or businesses, especially those in the healthcare and agriculture industries, report a desperate need for workers and are in search of legal immigrants to hire.
“Nobody likes to see a system of chaos,” Carey said. “The biggest concern that we hear is that we would like our country to be a country that’s open to immigrants. We’d like the system to work in an orderly way so that people are properly reviewed and vetted before they come here.”
But Carey told me that members disagree over whether Congress should grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for years or even decades. Some members contend that these immigrants should pay a fine or make restitution in some other way. Other members argue Congress should create more avenues for admitting immigrants legally, but they don’t believe illegal immigrants already here should have the right to change their status or become citizens.
Gabriel Salguero is president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. He also pastors The Gathering Place, an Assemblies of God church in Orlando, Fla. “Latino evangelicals are aware that there’s a lot of political theater and very little leadership,” he said. “We’re not naive. We know that this is a political talking point.”
Salguero is not politically affiliated and said many evangelical Latino voters feel “politically homeless.” Many of the coalition members are pro-life and support traditional marriage, but they also want bipartisan immigration solutions that both secure the border and welcome individuals fleeing violence, extreme poverty, and religious persecution.
Salguero was disheartened by how quickly Republicans in the House of Representatives shot down the bipartisan Senate border deal that Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. unveiled on Sunday. Soon after, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., announced the legislation would be dead on arrival in his chamber.
But Salguero said members of the coalition aren’t giving up on a bipartisan overhaul. “We’ve been here for decades,” he pointed out, “We’ve seen things get close and not pass. And so we’re not going anywhere. We’re pastors. We’re going to be at this for as long as it takes.”
As a pastor, Salguero serves families who live in fear they will be deported without a way to make their status legal. For many Latino evangelicals, creating a pathway to citizenship for the millions already here is a key issue, he said.
Beam with the South Carolina Baptist Convention noted many voters he knows aren’t willing to have a conversation about amnesty until the federal government resolves the current border chaos. “You have an administration who paroled so many people and granted amnesty so quickly and then released people into the interior of the country without the possibility of a court date for possibly years,” he said.
On Thursday evening, Hudgins with the Take Our Border Back Convoy parked his RV at a distillery outside of Austin, where hundreds gathered to show their support and listen to speeches.
“I respect somebody wanting a better life,” convoy organizer Robert Agee said from the stage, but “this border needs to be fixed. And these elected officials … aren’t doing that job.” The gathered crowd, many wearing patriotic colors and political slogans, cheered and clapped from picnic tables and folding chairs.
Heading into the 2024 elections, Salguero argued that evangelical voters must understand their identity as Christians first and foremost as a theological category, not a political identifier. “Evangelical means follower of Christ, and proclaimer of the good news,” he said. “It’s my hope that we, as evangelical voters, would approach the immigration issue from a gospel centered lens and not a partisan lens.”