Real Clear Politics | Evangelicals Provide Political Cover for Trump on DACA

The Trump administration’s proposal of a citizenship pathway for an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents is likely to set off alarm bells in certain segments of the president’s base. But one powerful constituency is championing the news.

Evangelical leaders, several of whom serve on one of President Trump’s advisory councils, have been putting pressure on the administration and lawmakers to keep so-called Dreamers, particularly those enrolled in the DACA program, in the country permanently. And their support is likely to provide some political cover for the president against charges of amnesty.

Trump has formed an unlikely relationship with members of the evangelical community, many of whom praise the White House for an unprecedented level of access. While certainly not a monolithic group — indeed, many have spoken out against the president and his often corrosive rhetoric – evangelicals helped Trump win the Oval Office and have rewarded him with high approval ratings since then. Many leaders have praised a variety of his policies — from judicial appointments to the rolling back of regulations involving religious liberties to eventually moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — and have stood by him through moral controversies.

These leaders also have held more sympathetic views toward immigration that the rest of the conservative base, particularly on the issue of Dreamers. And even as the president campaigned on a hard-line immigration stance and has used highly inflammatory rhetoric on the issue, Trump’s religious advisers say they have been able to shift his position on DACA recipients.

“I’m convinced our conversations have been a help,” said the Rev. Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and member of the president’s religious advisory council. Suarez and others have stressed compassion and morality when engaging with the president, prompting him to think as a father and grandfather regarding this issue. Even after he rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era executive order, in September, evangelicals applauded him for offering a six-month window for Congress to find a permanent legal solution. And they have pressed the notion that Trump could be an effective dealmaker on substantive immigration policy changes that eluded his predecessors.

“The president is aware that this is historic, that it’s long overdue,” said Suarez.

He and other faith leaders have also been proponents of tougher border enforcement and other reforms. “The wall should be funded, it should be built, and it shouldn’t be an issue, if that’s what it’s going to take,” Suarez said.

The White House proposal outlined to GOP lawmakers on Thursday and set to be officially rolled out on Monday includes $25 billion for a border wall and other security measures, an end to the visa lottery system, and limits on the family-based program referred to as chain migration to include only spouses and minor children. In addition, the administration has proposed a 10-to-12-year pathway to citizenship for current DACA recipients (estimated at around 800,000) plus an equal number of undocumented children eligible for the program but who did not apply.

The pathway announcement reflects what the president said Wednesday night during an impromptu appearance with reporters. “If they do a great job, I think it’s a nice thing to have the incentive of, after a period of years, being able to become a citizen,” Trump said.

The comments immediately created backlash among some of his supporters. The website Breitbart, formerly run by Steve Bannon, ran the headline “Amnesty Don,” for example.

But evangelical leaders argue that the president’s standing with his base creates opportunities along with controversy.

He “is uniquely positioned for a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment on immigration because he has been so tough,” said Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “If he’s able to get what he needs on the wall and interior enforcement, he’ll have more wiggle room with his supporters on the DACA issue. And if he does that deal, who will be able to argue he isn’t tough on immigration?

“It’s a tough issue to sell among conservatives, but among evangelicals there’s a teaching of our faith that we are to show compassion to the alien, and kindness to the sojourner or the stranger,” Reed added. “We can provide that moral argument in the case of DACA recipients.”

While the president has been seen as unreliable on DACA negotiations — earlier this month he called for a bill of “love” and pledged to sign whatever Congress agreed to, before denigrating a host of emigrant countries and dismissing one bipartisan proposal — some evangelical leaders argue that he has followed through on previous promises.

“I don’t always agree with the president’s rhetoric or vocabulary, but I like what he says about the Dreamers; he says they’re an asset to our country,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and a member of Trump’s advisory group. Like many evangelical leaders, Land noted that Trump was his last choice to represent the Republican Party in 2016, and that he voted for him as “the lesser of two evils” in the general election. But Land, who joined other faith leaders for meetings at the White House over the summer, said the president has a record of accomplishment on key issues so far, and that he approves of his approach to solving DACA.

“A majority of the American people and a majority of evangelicals want to deal compassionately with DACA [recipients], but they don’t want an additional flood [of undocumented immigrants],” said Land in backing border security measures and changes to family immigration policy. “Support for a wall and a path to, at the very least, permanent legal status — for me it’s not a tradeoff. … I want both and I have always wanted both.”

But other leaders are concerned that DACA recipients are being used as bargaining chips in immigration policy debates that have long bedeviled Congress. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been an outspoken critic of Trump since the campaign, but said he hoped the proposal for a citizenship pathway “will put some new momentum behind the Congress fixing this problem. … I’m not hopeless on this, because of the almost unanimity of the country.”

Moore said that his brethren bring a unique perspective to the issue. “What I find is that evangelicals are concerned about this primarily because we have so many Dreamers in our congregations, so these are real people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said. “Breaking up families and sending people to countries they’ve never known is not just.”

Jentezen Franklin, who leads a multi-ethnic church in the Atlanta area, has said he’s used his own experience with that congregation to appeal to the president on DACA. “That’s what we expressed to the president, that there’s got to be a way we can have a compassionate heart for these children,” Franklin, who is also on Trump’s advisory board, told CNN in September, after the president rescinded the program.

But most evangelical leaders agree that Congress is ultimately responsible for figuring out a solution. “When it comes to immigration and the White House, the White House can’t dictate policy,” said Suarez. “It’s 100 percent on Congress.”

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