US & World

California evangelicals joining opposition to family separations at border

Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas.
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

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The support of conservative church leaders helped catapult President Trump into office. But some of those same leaders, including some in California, are pushing back against his immigration policies, particularly one that separates children from their parents at the border.

This week, the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, became the latest evangelical group to call for immigration policy that prioritizes family unity.

Jonathan Keller, a Southern Baptist who represents the California convention on legislative matters, said immigration reform is especially important to state’s evangelicals because they live in a border state and many congregations include immigrants, a growing population in the evangelical church.

"I believe that you can support a policy of border enforcement and following immigration laws while at the same time realizing that children need their parents," said Keller, president of the California Family Council, which lobbies for evangelical interests in Sacramento. 

The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for more "compassionate" immigration reform at its annual meeting in Dallas this week.

The action comes after a coalition of evangelical leaders wrote a letter to President Trump, asking him to reverse the policy of family separation. Signatories include California-based church leaders Hyepin Im, who heads the Los-Angeles-based Korean Churches for Community Development/Faith and Community Empowerment, and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Sacramento.

The president of the National Association of Evangelicals also signed the letter. Galen Carey, the group's vice president for governmental relations, said evangelicals also called for immigration reform during the Obama administration but have upped their level of activism under Trump. 

"The number of people who are facing serious threats is, I think, greater because of the change of policies," said Carey, referring to increased immigration enforcement and narrowing categories for family reunification and refugee resettlement. 

Diane Winston, who teaches media and religion at the University of Southern California, said she doubts that Trump’s hardline immigration policies will dampen much evangelical support for him. She said the president has delivered on other issues important to evangelicals, such as religious liberty, abortion and Israel.

"[Evangelicals] most likely feel empowered to offer their opinion because they expect Trump knows that he has their support," Winston said. "So what they're saying is, 'We support you, we're behind you, but we wish you would just think about this one more time.'"

She said Trump's stance on immigration is unlikely to be a "deal-breaker" for most white evangelicals. But it might be more of an issue for Asian and Latino evangelicals. Research shows they're more liberal on immigration. 

Josie Huang covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.