Forum seeks common ground on immigration

Faith leaders gathered at the border wall near El Paso to pray for changes in what they see as unjust immigration laws in the United States. (File Photo / Isa Torres)

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WASHINGTON—An Oklahoma Republican and a Colorado Democrat emphasized the need to build on shared values and common ground as lawmakers wrestle with complex immigration issues.

As part of an effort to encourage bipartisan collaboration on immigration reform, the National Immigration Forum invited Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to a Nov. 15 dialogue in Washington, D.C.

The event, “Leading the Way: An American Approach to Immigration,” also featured business leaders, faith leaders, journalists and economic experts.

See people as God sees them

Sen. James Lankford

Lankford, former director of student ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said his background in ministry gave him a biblical worldview to see the importance of every person.

“Every person is created in the image of God and has value and worth,” Lankford said. “When you see people, hopefully, as God sees people, then it does change your perspective on how you actually deal with issues.”

Lankford said he believes there is more common ground than there are disagreements, but the polarized political climate has kept many people from bridging minor differences.

For example, the issue of U.S. policy toward refugees had not been a divisive issue until recently, Lankford noted, and he sees more potential for consensus if parties are willing to work together.

“I do not run into people who see this as a partisan issue when you talk about the humanity of it,” he said.

Build bridges

Sen. Michael Bennet

It should not be surprising when individuals have different perspectives, but not all disagreements center on matters of principle, Bennet said.

“If we continue to build bridges between people of different political parties and walks of life, ultimately we will succeed,” he said.

Unfortunately, President Trump has contributed to partisan division and made it difficult for lawmakers to seek consensus solutions on issues of immigration and border security, Bennet said.

“He is politicizing the wall” rather than allowing legislators to find mutually agreed-upon solutions, he asserted.

“Every day, [Trump] says the Democrats are for open borders, that is false,” Bennet said, noting honest differences of opinion over whether a physical barrier or a technological solution offers a better approach to border security.

While expressing agreement with concerns about the president’s communication style, Lankford credited Trump with efforts to include more people than expected in the citizenship proposal for individuals in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“The proposal he put out last February included citizenship for 1.8 million people,” Lankford said. “It was for all of those who were not just in DACA, but also who were DACA eligible. It was a larger group than what President Obama had put forward.”

‘Adhere to our core moral values’

In July, Lankford and Bennet joined in a bipartisan statement on immigration with about two dozen other senators opposing family separation of immigrants at the U.S. border. In a letter to the president, the senators urged the administration to work with the faith community in efforts to reunite families.

“While we represent constituents from all faiths and political backgrounds, we have all heard one consistent message—the United States government should not separate children from their families except in extreme circumstances. As we work to find a permanent solution, we urge the administration to use all available resources currently at its disposal to reunite families as soon as possible,” the letter stated.

“We remain committed to working together to fix our broken immigration system. Enforcement of our immigration laws should be a high priority, but we must also adhere to our core moral values as Americans.”

Disconnect between pulpits and pews

The political division over immigration issues is reflected in churches, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

“We began to see a disconnect between the sentiments of Protestant pastors and laity,” McConnell said.

lifeway immigration nextchart425LifeWay Research surveys have shown six out of 10 Protestant pastors (58 percent) say they favor immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for people who are in the country illegally.

When people talk about immigration, they tend only to think about those who come to the U.S. illegally, McConnell added. However, when the conversation turns to immigrants who have entered the country legally, most people express admiration toward them, he added.

“The heart of the Christian faith is to remove our transgressions, and that is through Jesus Christ,” he said. “But in our country today, if you are undocumented, in most cases, there is not a path or a way to achieve legal status.”

As much as Christians may want immigration to be resolved, the church has not pressed elected officials to create a path toward legal status, he said. Instead, immigrants who lack valid documentation are trapped in an underclass and an unjust system, he explained.

Some may fear there are not enough resources, and if immigrants—more specifically illegal immigrants—use those resources, then citizens will have to go without, McConnell said.

Laws help to make society function better, and many people find comfort in that, he continued. So, when they hear of a person who broke a law, they understandably feel threatened, saying, “Here’s someone who broke a law,’ instead of continuing the conversation to talk about the person,” McConnell said.

“I can’t get past Deuteronomy 10, where God in a section talking about justice actually switches the verb and says, ‘I love the resident alien who lives among you,’ and then bids that his people do the same,” McConnell said.

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