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People of Faith Support Immigration Reform, Approve of Clergy Speaking Out

Large Majorities of Major Religious Groups Support Opportunity for Citizenship

A new survey of U.S. citizens who are registered to vote by Public Religion Research Institute finds broad support across religious groups for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform and strong approval for clergy speaking out on the issue.   As immigration reform efforts resume around the country, the survey provides timely data about American voters’ attitudes on the issue and the influence of religion and values. The nationwide telephone survey of 1,201 American voters, along with two surveys of voters from Ohio (n=402) and Arkansas (n=402), was conducted March 5–11, 2010. The study was sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

“By a 2-to-1 margin, American voters strongly support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and they want a solution that reflects strongly held values,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.  “More than 8-in-10 Americans—including overwhelming majorities of white mainline Protestants, Catholics, and white evangelicals—believe strongly that immigration reform should be guided by the values of protecting the dignity of every person and keeping families together as well as by such values as promoting national security and ensuring fairness to taxpayers.”  

The survey identified a significant partisan values gap that informs different approaches to immigration. There is general agreement among Democratic, Independent, and Republican voters on values such as promoting national security, securing the border, and ensuring fairness to taxpayers.  On the other hand, Democratic voters rated cultural-religious values—such as protecting the dignity of every person, keeping families together, the Golden Rule, and the biblical value of welcoming the stranger—higher than Republican voters by double digits.

Jones also said the survey refutes recent claims that religious leaders’ support for comprehensive immigration reform does not reflect the values of people in the pews.  Nearly nine-in-ten voters in the general population and from every major religious tradition—including white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, and Catholics—favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, one of the key provisions of a comprehensive approach to reform.  And by a two-to-one margin, voters overall and from across the religious landscape favored a comprehensive approach over more limited approaches focused on enforcement alone.

“On this issue, the public is out ahead of the politicians,” said Rev. Rich Nathan, pastor of the 10,000-member Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio.  “Our politicians need to exert some focused leadership; they’ll find they have the support if they exert that leadership.”

“These findings highlight the importance of the religious community, which shares a common set of values on this issue,” said Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life, one of several leaders from the religious community who commented on the survey findings. “The faith community is uniquely positioned to break down partisan barriers on immigration reform by emphasizing these shared values. This is critical in the weeks and months ahead as we work to fix our broken immigration system with support from both political parties.”

Additionally, the survey shows that Americans who attend religious services regularly are comfortable with clergy speaking out about the issue of immigration. The survey found that while only about one-fourth of regular worship attenders report hearing about immigration reform at their place of worship, strong majorities would be comfortable hearing their clergy address the issue in church venues such as from the pulpit, as well as in public venues such as community meetings and the media.

“I am encouraged that the poll shows people want immigration reform that is guided by religious values such as the dignity of the human person, keeping families together, and the Golden Rule — values the Bishops and the Catholic Church have long held as central on this issue,” said Father Tom Reese, Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “It is also encouraging to see that a majority of people support their clergy speaking out on immigration reform.”

The survey found that American voters are nearly equally divided over whether immigrants today strengthen the country or are a burden, but more than 8-in-10 said they completely (42%) or mostly (42%) agree that the American economy would benefit if current illegal immigrants became taxpaying citizens.  The survey also found that deportation was broadly unpopular as a solution. A majority (56%) of voters disagree that we “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.”  While white evangelicals are more likely to call current immigrants a burden on the country, 83% of them, nearly the same percentage as Americans overall, agree that the economy would benefit if current illegal immigrants became taxpaying citizens.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • A majority (56%) of voters say the immigration system is completely or largely broken. Only 7% say the system is generally working, and about one-third (34%) say the system is working but with some major problems.
  • At least 8-in-10 voters rate four values as very or extremely important guides to immigration reform: enforcing the rule of law and promoting national security (88%), ensuring fairness to taxpayers (84%), protecting the dignity of every person (82%), and keeping families together (80%). There are few significant differences among religious groups; for example, white evangelical voters are just as likely as white Mainline, Catholic and unaffiliated voters to say protecting the dignity of every person is a very or extremely important value.
  • A strong majority (71%) also say following the Golden Rule—“providing immigrants the same opportunity that I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”— is a very or extremely important value.
  • Nearly 9-in-10 (86%) American voters favor a policy that includes one of the key provisions of comprehensive immigration reform—that illegal immigrants be required to register with the government, work, pay taxes, and learn English before having the opportunity to apply for citizenship. Support remains strong across all religious traditions. When asked to choose between a description of comprehensive immigration reform and typical opposing arguments, American voters still prefer a comprehensive approach by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.
  • There is general agreement across political lines about the importance of the values of enforcing the rule of law/promoting national security, and ensuring fairness to taxpayers, with more than 8-in-10 voters rating these as extremely or very important.
  • However, by double-digit margins, Democratic voters are more likely than Republican voters to rate cultural-religious values as important for immigration reform:
    • For Democratic voters, the top two most important values that should guide immigration reform are protecting the dignity of every person and keeping families together. Democratic voters rate these values significantly higher than Republican voters (88% vs. 74%, and 88% vs. 71% extremely/very important respectively).
    • Democratic voters are also significantly more likely than Republican voters to rate religious values such as following the Golden Rule and welcoming the stranger as very or extremely important for immigration reform (75% vs. 65%, and 60% vs. 45% respectively).

A majority of voters who attend religious services regularly (at least once or twice per month) say they would be comfortable with clergy speaking out from the pulpit, and 6-in-10 say they would be comfortable with clergy discussing the issue in their congregation’s newsletter or website. Larger majorities would be comfortable with clergy talking about the issue in an adult education session (74%), at a local community meeting (77%) or in the local media (75%).

Read the survey.

Read the Questionnaire, Topline Results and Survey Methodology.

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