In a rare show of public unity, several of President Trump’s evangelical advisers met and held an emotional news conference Thursday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to push for protection of “dreamers.” One pastor, who spoke at Trump’s inauguration, noted a major antiabortion march in D.C. on the next day and said the undocumented young people are also a “life” issue.
The meeting was believed to be the first of its kind between the conservative evangelical pastors and the Democratic leader — in public. Both sides have reason to gain from such an event. Some 20 percent of American Latinos consider themselves evangelical, and they — and their fellow congregants — are increasingly pushing for the dreamers as well as immigration reform. A large swath of Trump voters identify as evangelical, and a high-profile faith event for dreamers hypothetically could nudge the politically conservative group toward a compromise.
“America is better for your prophetic leadership,” the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told Pelosi at an afternoon news conference attended by the leaders as well as a dozen young dreamers — a group of some 690,000 young undocumented immigrants who fall under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Rodriguez, who spoke at Trump’s inauguration, noted thousands of abortion opponents would rally Friday on the National Mall for the annual March for Life. Trump plans to address the marchers.
“I believe in the sanctity of life. … To those members of Congress committed to life: It doesn’t finish when the baby is born. Womb to tomb,” Rodriguez said at the news conference. “I’m staunchly committed to my ‘life’ platform.”
Rodriguez also linked protection for the dreamers to the demand of Trump and congressional immigration hard-liners that a wall be built along the U.S. southern border.
“Let us not sacrifice [hundreds of thousands of] young men and women who are made in the image of God on the altar of the wall. Let’s fund and build the wall,” Rodriguez said. “The wall is a physical object created by man. These people are created in the image of God by God. So if we have to build a wall, let’s make that happen as expeditiously as possible. Let’s cross the proverbial River Jordan.”
Ongoing talks between the White House and Congress center on merging changes in the legal status of dreamers with changes in border security. While Trump continues to insist on construction of a physical wall across the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico span, administration officials have told lawmakers they are seeking another 700 miles of additional wall or fencing plus more security technology or drones to monitor the border.
Since 2013, Democrats have supported bolstering security along the southern border, but remain opposed to building a wall along the entire span. Many Republicans, especially from southern border states, also oppose constructing such a wall.
Most of the small number of faith leaders at the conference are part of Trump’s loosely-comprised, unofficial faith advisory group, and most were also part of a smaller evangelical group that advised Trump during his campaign.
The group that gathered Thursday included Rodriquez; Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the conference; Sergio De La Mora, founding pastor of Cornerstone Church of San Diego and head of the conference’s megachurch association; Bishop Harry Jackson, a Pentecostal leader based in Maryland; and Jay Strack, a leadership speaker and Florida pastor.
Johnnie Moore, an unofficial spokesman for Trump’s evangelical advisory group — the only known regular pipeline of religion feedback into the White House — said the group was intentionally small Thursday but the “majority” of the conservative evangelicals who speak to the administration agree a permanent legal solution must be found for the dreamers who could face deportation.
Evangelical views on immigration, security, refugees and Trump’s travel ban are complex, and sometimes seem contradictory.
Moore, Rodriguez and other members have been saying since before the election that all along they have advocated behind the scenes with the Trump administration for dreamers and for a comprehensive immigration reform. Some took credit in a Washington Post article last fall for Trump’s decision to build in a six-month delay on rescinding DACA.
On Thursday, Moore would not repeat that claim — of credit — and emphasized the responsibility for a dreamer solution lies with Congress, not Trump. While the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about his prioritizing of a DACA solution, the evangelical advisers said Thursday the onus is on Congress, and that is where they have been making their rounds.
“Nearly every Christian leader, everyone is very concerned about making sure there is a permanent decision for dreamers, and those of us close to the administration believe that the president is speaking with sincerity when he says he wants a bill that protects dreamers. We don’t have any questions about his point of view,” Moore said.
Evangelical leaders in general, and Latino ones in particular, face growing pressure within their congregations to clarify their association with and advocacy for Trump, who has offered mixed-messages about immigration.
Evangelical leaders at the meetings today have met before with Pelosi’s office, Moore said, and have in recent days and weeks met with dozens of members of Congress to push for DACA reform.
“Every time they point to the White House, they are deflecting responsibility. He has said to send him something. We are taking the president at his word that if that something takes into consideration security, he will sign it,” he said.
Trump’s election has let loose bitter divisions among American evangelicals, many of whom who are pleased with his emphasis on religious freedom protections for religious conservatives and his public opposition to abortion, but who are deeply split on how he has spoken about race, poverty and immigration. One member quit WHAT?? very publicly after Trump wavered publicly last year in condemning white supremacist marchers in Charlottevsille.
Moore said he was not aware of any members who had threatened or considered leaving the advisory group if Trump did not do more for dreamers.
“We’re not responsible for if that advice is taken — our job is if we gave it. We are very happy in many ways with the president as it relates to lots of issues, but as advisers it’s our job to express our points of view, and they vary,” Moore said. “On this issue, certainly for the vast majority of evangelicals at the White House, this is something they have a strong opinion about.”
At the conference several dreamers spoke, including Elias Rosenfeld, a Brandeis University student who has interned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Rosenfeld is Jewish and from Venezuela. He described having to watch the funeral of his grandfather, with whom Rosenfeld was very close after his own mother’s death, via cellphone video because he could not leave the country.
“In the Torah … we are called 36 times to welcome the stranger. This, with the Jewish community’s experience from Egypt to the Holocaust, informs our commitment to the Dream Act,” Rosenfeld said, citing a proposal for resolving the ‘dreamers’ status.
Pelosi pushed at the meeting for the passage of the Dream Act, which offers dreamers a path to citizenship.
“If this is brought to the president’s desk it will be signed,” she said. “We have to address some border security issues, and I hope we can do this in very short order. As the reverends know, that means respecting the value of family. It’s the heart of our faith, and our identity as Americans.”