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What Would Ted Cruz Do, Ask Pro-Immigration Evangelicals?

While Ted Cruz has taken a hardline approach on immigration reform, evangelicals have become activists on the issue in Washington and on the pulpit.
US Senator Ted Cruz(R-TX) delivers remarks announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run for US president March 23, 2015, inside the Vine Center at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. AFP PHOTO/PAUL J. RICHARDSPAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty ImagesPAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

One of the biggest boosts to the immigration movement in recent years has been growing support from evangelicals.

As the numbers of Latinos and immigrants of various races and ethnicities have grown, so has the potential for expansion of U.S. evangelical congregations.

So the attempt by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to appeal to evangelical voters on whom he has pinned his presidential aspirations raises the question of whether he can woo this electorate even with his tough stance on immigration.

A Cruz campaign spokeswoman did not respond to a request from NBC News for comment. But while Cruz has taken a generally hardline approach on immigration reform, evangelicals have become activists on the issue in Washington and from the pulpit. Over time, congregations and evangelical leaders have subjected their thinking on immigration and in particular on immigrants who are not legally in the country to the "What Would Jesus Do?" test.

Those who have decided that Christ's teaching call for more than deportation have taken significant steps. They have formed a group, the Evangelical Immigration Table, around the issue. That group paid for and ran newspaper and radio ads aimed at House Speaker John Boehner last year as the House dragged its feet on immigration reform legislation. Group leaders also teamed with Roman Catholic bishops in an open letter to House members urging them to get moving on immigration reform.

The Evangelical Immigration Table includes Liberty Counsel, chaired and founded by Matthew Staver, dean of the law school at Liberty University, the Jerry Falwell-founded school where Cruz announced his candidacy.

“It goes to the consistency of our mission and our identity as evangelicals,” said Jenny Yang, director of advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Officials from NAE were on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Cruz's activity on immigration reform has conflicted with the forward movement on immigration reform that evangelicals have wanted.

Cruz led the efforts last December to use a funding bill to repeal President Barack Obama’s immigration executive action programs. He opposed the Senate-passed "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration reform bill and a Republican plan to give probationary legal status to immigrants while the border was being secured.

He has said he opposed the path to citizenship granted in the Senate immigration bill, but didn’t block the granting of work permits to immigrants here illegally. He has also said he wants to fix the nation’s legal immigration system. Cruz has supported a border security first plan. Parts of his immigration views, however, await clarification on the campaign trail.

The biggest support for immigration reform among evangelicals is among Latino evangelicals, who number about 8 million nationally, said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

Salguero said Cruz has tainted his candidacy because of his immigration reform record. Latinos are the fastest growing group of evangelicals in the U.S. — add to that Asian, Korean, Chinese, African and West Indies populations who also are joining evangelical churches and have significant immigrant populations, he said.

A tough stand on immigration is “not helpful to any candidate, Sen. Cruz, or anyone,” Salguero said. “Some of his possible challengers like (Jeb) Bush and (Sen.) Rand Paul have a position that is more conciliatory and willing to negotiate.

Salguero’s organization has pushed ahead, despite the opposition of Cruz and others to Obama's executive action programs, now on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Texas and more than two dozen states.

Salguero's group has been holding training sessions for evangelical churches so their legal experts can help their parishioners apply for the deferred deportation programs made possible by Obama’s executive action and to help them navigate other parts of the immigration system, much as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network has done for many years.

A 2014 survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed nearly 54 percent of white evangelical protestants favored allowing immigrants here illegally to become citizens and 14 percent supported allowing them to become legal permanent residents. Just 30 percent supported deporting them. The survey sample of 8,000 white evangelicals is the largest surveyed on the issue, according to PRRI.

“Generally speaking there has been steady majority support over the last few years for a path to citizenship for immigrants who are living in the country illegally, both among the general population and religious groups, including more conservative and Republican-leaning religious groups such as white evangelical Protestants,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s CEO.

But evangelicals are a diverse group, points out Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the conservative American Principle’s Project’s Latino Partnership.

Politically influential evangelicals such as Focus on the Family’s founder James Dobson; Family Research Council president Tony Perkins or American Values president Gary Bauer, are not active on immigration reform, Aguilar said.

“In fact, when they talked about it, they said things that were not very good,” said Aguilar, an immigration reform supporter.

But Yang counters that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has backed a path to legal status for immigrants in a resolution it passed in 2011. Also, Jim Daly, current president and CEO of Focus on the Family, joined the Evangelical Immigration Table in 2012.

“The way we treat immigrants on the policy level demonstrates a lot about what we believe about our ethos as a faith group and what the Bible teaches us as well," Yang said.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, has worked since 2008 to bring evangelicals into the immigration reform movement, which led to the creation of "Bibles Badges Business" made up of preachers, law enforcement and business people who support reform.

"Whether it is Sen. Cruz or any other candidate, Republican primary voters have one question: What is their solution to a broken immigration system? Deport 11 million people?" Noorani asked. "The majority of evangelical voters want a compassionate, practical, solution. Deporting 11 million people and their families is neither compassionate nor practical — every serious candidate for president knows that."

Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) in Houston next month. The evangelical organization represents 40,118 evangelical congregations, according to its website. Bush has been criticized by some conservatives for defending illegal migration as an "act of love," but has also criticized Obama's executive action as "ill advised." He'll be sharing billing with immigration reform champion Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC, has been an enthusiastic supporter of immigration reform. In 2013, he fasted with other immigration activists in the hope it would move Boehner to take legislation on the issue to a vote. Rodriguez fasted 40 days.

He said Cruz's candidacy should be celebrated because Cruz, as an American with Hispanic ancestry, "embodies the narrative of immigrants."

"Accordingly, while I disagree with Sen. Cruz's rhetoric on immigration," Rodriguez said, "I hope that this experience will enable him to embrace the redemptive and compassionate idea of an immigration solution that secures our borders and values while providing a pathway for the integration of those currently undocumented."