What do Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons all have in common? And no, this is not the beginning of a joke.
The growth of all three faiths is being fueled by the Latino population. Latinos are not just the fastest growing population but as a group they are more religious. Latinos are the fastest growing segments of the Evangelical movement, the Catholic Church, and the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Coincidentally, these religious groups are also supportive of a more open immigration policy.
The vocal defense of comprehensive immigration reform by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is neither new nor surprising. The majority of Latinos are Catholic and the American Catholic Church has been saved from steep membership decline because of the growth of the Latino population.
The Mormon Church does not explicitly get involved in political issues, such as immigration. However, over the last several years the Church of LDS has unofficially been advocating for a more humane and realistic approach to immigration. The Mormon Church has doubled the size of their Spanish language congregations in the last decade and continues to expand throughout Latin America.
The newcomer to the pro-immigration camp today is the Evangelical movement. Evangelical leaders are taking a grass-roots mobilizing approach in spreading the word to their faithful through the pulpit and media outreach. At the same time, Evangelical leaders are sending Republican elected officials the signal that it’s OK to move away from a hardline enforcement only stance on immigration.
This explicit support for immigration is so interesting because Evangelicals (like Mormons) overwhelmingly identify with the Republican Party. So in the last several weeks we have seen a group of people traditionally associated with restrictionist immigration policy shift to supporting a more open immigration reform policy.
Evangelicals have voiced their support for immigration reform, but exactly what version of a more open immigration reform is unclear. For example, the Evangelical Immigration Table, an Evangelical umbrella organization, wrote an open letter to the President calling for, “a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.” Note the and/or part of that clause. Most recently, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a prominent Evangelical advocacy group, put forward a set of guiding principles for immigration reform that highlighted the importance of family unity as a part of immigration reform. However, yet again whether reform means a pathway to citizenship remains murky.
From a tactical point of view it is surprising that the Evangelical movement is not calling for a robust immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Research shows that while Latinos as a group are more religious, the most socially conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage are the older and recently arrived immigrants. In other words, the Evangelical movement would limit its political power by keeping its growing Latino congregations from casting a vote.
At this point the Evangelical movement could maintain a vague position on legal status or it could come out in favor of a full-fledged path to citizenship. But at the very least, the fact that a group once mum on the issue of immigration reform has come to the fore is indicative of the importance of Latinos to their organization. Not only have Republicans, but one of the most conservative elements of the party, Evangelicals realized that Latinos are their Holy Grail.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.