I read two articles last week that seem to contradict one another. First, I saw a new poll by Gallup on the topic of immigration: they found that 88% of Americans—including 83% of self-described conservatives—now support what has been the most controversial element of recent immigration reform legislation: allowing undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements (including paying a fine, paying taxes, passing a criminal background check, and learning English) to become U.S. citizens. While this proposal has actually consistently been popular with a majority of voters for several years, I’ve never seen such high levels of support, especially from those who identify as conservative.
The headline of the other article that I read proclaimed, “Immigration Reform Heads for Slow Death.” Despite broad and unprecedented popularity, despite the pleas for action from conservative leaders such as Grover Norquist, Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove, and former President George W. Bush, from business interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, scores of different industry groups, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and from religious leaders including Southern Baptist leaders like Al Mohler, Russell Moore, Richard Land, and Frank Page, leaders of nearly every other evangelical denomination, the U.S. Catholic Bishops and even (indirectly) the Pope, and despite a bipartisan Senate bill that passed last month with more than twice as many votes in favor as against, many commentators are convinced that no bill containing a broad legalization process where undocumented immigrants could ultimately be eligible to earn citizenship will pass the U.S. House of Representatives anytime soon. (Based on what I’ve heard of the House Republicans’ private conference on this topic last Wednesday, I’m more optimistic than some of the press reports, but immigration reform’s prospects certainly are tenuous).
Immigration reform is broadly popular, but many think it is unlikely to become law: that doesn’t make sense, does it? Here are several reasons why that is—and for many years now has been—the case:
1) Regional Variance: The nation’s views on immigration issues vary widely by geography, with support for a process for the undocumented to be able to earn citizenship more popular in the places where the most undocumented immigrants live—and interact with U.S. citizen voters—particularly urban areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. But support is lower in rural and suburban areas, which are precisely the areas more likely to be represented by Republican Members of Congress. While only 63% of the national population are non-Hispanic whites, fully 111 Republicans in the House represent districts that are at least 80% white.
2) The Hastert Rule: Republican Members of Congress are uniquely important because Speaker of the House John Boehner has the authority to decide whether or not he will call legislation to a vote. Many people believe that the Senate’s immigration bill, if called to a vote today, would likely pass: almost all of the House’s 201 Democrats say that they support the proposal, so it would only take about twenty Republicans to vote in favor to reach the 218-vote majority threshold necessary to pass a bill. But the Senate bill will almost certainly not ever receive a vote in the House, because Speaker Boehner has committed to abide by the so-called “Hastert Rule,” named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, which means he will call to a vote only legislation that has the support of a majority of the Republicans. That means fully 120 Republicans will need to be in favor of voting on any immigration legislation that is to ultimately pass the House (and to win the 218 votes necessary to pass, it will also still need to be palatable to at least half of the Democrats).
3) Gerrymandered Districts: One of the reasons that most Republicans in the House represent districts that are significantly less ethnically diverse than the nation as a whole (and most Democratic districts have a significantly higher share of ethnic minorities) is because of gerrymandering, the process of drawing Congressional districts in such a way as to maximize one party’s chances of winning. Here in my State of Illinois, for example, the Democratic-controlled legislature redrew Congressional districts following the 2010 census: by drawing serpentine districts that put as many likely-Republicans in one district as possible—and thus keeping them from voting in more “swing” districts—the Illinois Congressional delegation dropped from eleven Republicans to six. Texas’ Republican-led legislature has done similar redistricting to their party’s advantage and to similar effects.
The effect of this sort of redistricting is that most House Republicans are fairly secure in their seats: they represent strongly conservative districts that are unlikely to vote for Democrats. There are many Republican Members of Congress who are more concerned about the threat of losing a Primary Election to another Republican than they are of losing a General Election to a Democrat. Particularly after long-time Republican elected officials who have supported immigration reform, like former Senators Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar, have lost primary elections in recent years to candidates opposed to reform, many Republican congress people are wary of crossing the small percentage of their overall districts who vote in Republicans Primary Elections.
4) A Silent, Indifferent Majority. The most salient reason that so few Republican Members of Congress are outspokenly supportive of an earned citizenship process—and the one reason that you have the power to change—is because most Americans’ support is very quiet. If you call and ask people their opinion about immigration reform, most think it seems reasonable, but they don’t see it as a priority, and they’re unlikely to affirmatively call their Congressperson to express their support. The minority of voters who are opposed—no more than 12% of all voters in the most recent Gallup poll—tend to be very vocal. They flood their Representatives’ offices with letters, phone calls, faxes, and emails. The last time that comprehensive immigration reform was seriously debated in Congress—in 2007—many Representatives said they received ten calls in opposition to the bill for every one call in favor, even though the polls at the time showed broad public support. And the bill died. Representatives bet, somewhat rationally, that the majority who were supportive but not particularly passionate would cast their ballots based on other issues about which they felt more strongly, while those who called every single day would make their voting decision based on the legislator’s vote on immigration policy. Quite frankly, immigration reform died last time because it was not particularly important to the majority of voters: many of us viewed it as someone else’s problem.
If there’s one institution that is supposed to care about people beyond itself—which, as Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “exists for the benefit of its non-members”—it is the Church. Scripture compels us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8), which I think must include the immigrants in our community whose voices and interests are seldom considered by most in Congress, since they are ineligible to vote. Furthermore, if we have a biblical ecclesiology that recognizes that each believer—including the undocumented brother or sister—forms an integral part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-26), the reality is that when we speak up for the undocumented, we are speaking up for ourselves.
There are several practical ways that you can do so in the coming days, which really could make a significant difference:
1) Pray. Seriously pray every single day for your Representative. You can sign up for weekly prayer reminders and requests at www.G92.org/pray4reform.
2) Take one minute, visit G92’s new advocacy page, enter your zip code, and then send an email to your Representative, asking him or her to take biblical principles into account as they consider reforms to U.S. immigration law.
3) Once you’ve confirmed who your Representative is, call his or her office and ask the receptionist if the Representative will be hosting any town hall meetings in the next few months. Most Representatives will be in their home districts for the entire month of August, and many host public forums where you can share your concerns as a constituent. Find out when they are, show up, and use the opportunity to let your Representative know that you’re praying he or she will support immigration reform. Most are much more likely to do so if they return to D.C. in September having heard lots of positive support, rather than just angry opposition from the small minority of voters who usually take the time to come to these events.
4) Take a road trip to Washington, D.C. for the #Pray4Reform National Day of Prayer and Action on Wednesday, July 24. We’ll help you set up a meeting with your Representative or his or her staff, and we’ll have the opportunity to join hundreds of other believers from throughout the country to pray corporately for our legislators. Sign up online.
5) Watch the G92 site for an exciting new film to be launched within the next couple weeks. Once it’s up, please do everything you can to help spread the word, including sharing it via Facebook, Twitter, and email. If you’d like an advanced preview of the new video, sign up for our G92 email list.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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