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New survey highlights evangelical concerns about illegal immigration

Recent murder stirs local and national outrage over lax immigration policies

A vigil for Laken Riley at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. Associated Press/Photo by Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald

New survey highlights evangelical concerns about illegal immigration

Troy Bush first heard about Laken Riley’s murder from University of Georgia students who attend his Atlanta-metro area church. The students received campus safety notifications about the 22-year-old woman who was killed on Feb. 22 while she was out for a run on their campus. Soon, news flooded the internet about Riley’s alleged murderer: Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan national who is believed to have entered the United States illegally. Immigration authorities had held and then released Ibarra “pending future proceedings,” according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. 

“It was like a dark cloud that settled,” said Bush, who pastors Rehoboth Church Family. “You virtually can’t be anywhere and it is not a point of conversation, because it’s a very painful and a very pointed moment and it has certainly become part of the national conversation related to immigration and our border.” On Tuesday evening, a retired teacher in the area organized a rally event to protest the sanctuary city policies which she believes contributed to Riley’s murder.

Bush said his 169-year-old Baptist church reflects the diversity of the burgeoning Atlanta-metro area. Nearby Clarkston is a hotspot for asylum-seekers and refugees. “So these matters hit home for us,” he said. “And I think more and more people are saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’ Regardless of where your positions are on this, something has got to change.” 

Bush and his congregation aren’t alone. A new Lifeway Research survey released last week reveals a growing number of evangelical voters are fed up with the current immigration situation. But the majority of those surveyed said they want nuanced reforms that provide a pathway to legalization for those already here while cracking down on out-of-control illegal crossings. For the first time since 2019, voters ranked immigration as the most important problem facing the United States, according to a February Gallup poll. 

Lifeway Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, surveyed 1,010 individuals who either self-identified as evangelical Christians or affirmed evangelical beliefs including the supreme authority of Scripture and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the only means of salvation. The 507 respondents who agreed with the doctrinal statements instead of just self-identifying as evangelical were more likely to consider themselves “very conservative” politically. 

The group conducted a similar survey in 2022, and the new data reflects participants’ frustration with the ongoing border crisis that has dominated the headlines for the past two years. This year, 50 percent of evangelicals said the number of recent immigrants are a drain on economic resources, up from 32 percent in 2022. Slightly more respondents considered immigrants a threat to the safety of American citizens and to law and order (37 percent, up from 33 and 31 percent in 2022). 

“I’m not at all surprised,” Matthew Soerens, the vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, one of the organizations that sponsored the research, told reporters on the press call announcing the survey in January. “I live near Chicago, where there are real challenges, particularly with Venezuelan asylum seekers who have come into cities, allowed in by the U.S. government but not allowed to work, which is just asking for a very difficult situation.” 

Still, 80 percent of the evangelicals surveyed characterized legal immigration as helpful, though opinions differed on whether existing levels should be maintained, increased, or decreased. In this year’s survey, a slightly greater percentage of participants—77 percent—said it is important that Congress pass new immigration legislation. 

Last month, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., spearheaded a bipartisan bill to increase border funding and personnel and limit the use of catch-and-release parole. The measure also raised the bar for asylum claims. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., announced the bill “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled chamber. 

“There is a deep frustration that the parties cannot come together to solve these issues,” Soerens continued

Over 90 percent of the survey respondents said they support potential immigration legislation that guarantees secure national borders while respecting the God-given dignity of every person and keeping families together. Three-quarters of respondents also indicated they would support a path to citizenship for those here illegally if they met certain qualifications. An even greater percentage said they would get behind immigration legislation that made citizenship available to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children and provided for enough legal agricultural workers. 

As a pastor, Bush has walked alongside immigrants who are living in the United States unlawfully but are desperate to make their status legal. He highlighted the need for more legal pathways for immigrants to obtain work visas and citizenship,  as well as a restitution process for many of those already here illegally. 

But Bush believes securing the U.S.-Mexico border must precede any other reform: “There has to be a first step of literally defending our borders,” he said. Bush emphasized that Laken Riley’s murder was preventable. If our immigration system had functioned like it’s supposed to, “we may very well not be having this conversation,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that hit hard.” 

Notably, 26 percent of participants said the Bible influenced their thinking on immigration the most, up from 12 percent in 2015 and 20 percent in 2022. For the first time, the media took second place in the discussion about immigration. 

“As a pastor, I’m thankful that Scripture is now in first place amongst evangelicals, and I hope that trend continues to rise,” Gabriel Salguero, the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told reporters. He said many pastors tell him they don’t think their parishioners aren’t interested in what the Bible has to say about immigration. “The research shows the opposite,” Salguero pointed out during the press call. “The majority of evangelicals want to hear a sermon. They want to be discipled on immigration reform, beyond political talking points.” 

Back in Georgia, Bush said that approaching the immigration conversation from a Biblical perspective is the only way to move forward from the tragedy of Riley’s murder and into the chaos of the November election. 

“As believers, we have a gospel and a kingdom mandate that, however these sojourners have entered into our community, we ought to be expressing the gospel to them,” he said. “And we can hold both of those truths at the same time. We can desire that they would live according to the laws of our country. And we can also desire that they would be encountered with the gospel of Jesus Christ and their lives radically changed by that.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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