Immigrant-Bashers Will Lose the Evangelical Vote

Newcomers here aren’t likely to be criminals. But they do tend to be Bible-loving Christians.

The Disciples of Christ church in Phoenix, Az
The Disciples of Christ church in Phoenix, Az

Imagine that an American politician, competing with a dozen other candidates for media attention, launched his presidential campaign by describing the nation’s evangelical Christians as a problem: “They’re charlatans who raise money from poor people to spend on private jets,” he says. “They have multiple affairs and sexually abuse children. And, some, I assume, are good people.”

Millions of evangelical Christians would be fighting mad, and rightly so. While there have been a few, highly publicized cases of professing evangelicals committing these sins and crimes, the overwhelming majority have not. This charge against believers would be what the Bible calls bearing false witness, and what the world calls slander.

No presidential candidate would make such a claim, as no candidate would want to alienate millions of evangelicals. And yet this blanket slander is precisely what Donald Trump did in recent days by describing Mexican immigrants as “bringing crime” to the U.S. and as “rapists.” Mr. Trump then “clarified” his views by suggesting that the problem is “not just Mexico,” but immigrants from other parts of the world as well.

Are some immigrants criminals? Yes. It is false, though, that this element is a representative sample of immigrants, from Mexico or elsewhere.

Immigrants are convicted of crimes at rates significantly lower than native-born American citizens, and this has been true for decades. A recent report from the American Immigration Council found that about 1.6% of immigrant men between the ages of 18 and 39 were incarcerated, compared with 3.3% of native-born American citizens in the same age range. Among men in that age range without a high-school diploma, the incarceration rate for Mexican immigrants is less than one-third of that of native-born American citizens.

The two of us don’t know a single evangelical voter, of any ethnicity, who is supporting Donald Trump. That is due to many factors, including his revolving-door marriages and past support for abortion. But candidates who actually have a shot at winning the presidency should understand: Immigrant-bashing offends not only Hispanic people, but also their Anglo, African-American and Asian-American fellow Christians.

The typical immigrant is not likely, statistically speaking, to be a rapist or a murderer. But he or she is quite likely to be a Bible-believing Christian. A Pew Research study found that about one in four American evangelicals is nonwhite, up from 19% in 2007. That growth is driven in large part by immigrants and their children. For evangelicals, immigrants aren’t merely a political issue, they are the families in the next pew. The church of Jesus Christ is a household: When our brothers and sisters are maligned, the whole body of Christ suffers with them.

And while news media fixated on Mr. Trump’s speech to a few thousand people in Phoenix last weekend, an estimated 60,000 people gathered in New York to hear the gospel preached by Luis Palau, a Hispanic immigrant. The event was supported by 1,700 local churches, most of them Hispanic-led and many of them Spanish-speaking. New York, thought of as a stronghold of secularism, is a place where Christianity is thriving, fueled primarily by immigrant congregations that believe the whole Bible and preach the gospel of redemption through the blood of Christ.

Where we agree with Mr. Trump is that the immigration system isn’t tough enough on dangerous lawbreakers. That is because a “don’t ask, don’t tell” system doesn’t allow us to know who is here with dangerous intent, and who is here trying to provide for his family. This system rewards businesses that want to exploit workers, but robs the government of the power to do exactly what God commands governments to do—to punish evildoers (Romans 13:1-5).

This is why we’ve supported reforms to secure borders, require employers to comply with the law, and welcome legal immigration. Immigrants in this country unlawfully, whether they overstayed a visa or crossed a border, should be required to face serious consequences to make amends. This is hardly the free grace of “amnesty.” Those with criminal offenses should be deported immediately. The immigrants who stay should include only those who contribute to society and are willing to work at restitution for laws broken. About seven in 10 evangelicals back these reforms, according to a survey released in February by LifeWay Research.

Evangelicals don’t all agree on how to fix the system. Even the two of us disagree on President Obama’s executive action on immigration. But all of us agree that every human being is made in the image of God, with inherent dignity. Those who see immigrants as easy targets for scaremongering will find that they will lose more than the Hispanic vote; they also will lose those who sing, maybe in different languages, from the same hymnbook.

Mr. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mr. Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

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