By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - A national coalition of evangelicals supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrantsis targeting two South Carolina congressional districts as part of a national radio campaign that started Tuesday in 14 states.
The Evangelical Immigration Table is spending $400,000 on radio ads on Christian and talk radio stations in 56 Republican congressional districts to support legislation that would secure the border, keep immigrant families together and allow some immigrants in the country illegally a chance to earn citizenship.
The ads will play while lawmakers are in their districts during the final weeks of Congress' summer recess, which ends Sept. 9.
"They will return to Washington knowing they have support at home for taking action on reform," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research with the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Organizers said the 56 Republican districts were chosen because those members are on committees that play a key role in the immigration debate, or they have a strong evangelical community.
In South Carolina, the ads are airing in the 4th District represented by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, and the 5th District represented by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land.
Gowdy is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that focuses on immigration, and is a key negotiator. He has focused most prominently on aspects of immigration reform that involve securing the border and empowering local police to assist in stronger enforcement of immigration laws. But he has also embraced the moral argument that some people here illegally should be allowed to stay.
On Tuesday, Gowdy, through a spokeswoman, welcomed the evangelicals' ad campaign.
"The status quo has left our national security jeopardized with porous borders, our laws unenforced, our economy missing necessary skills, and families separated for years," Gowdy said. "But to achieve a long-term solution, any plan must first guarantee border security and restore enforcement of our laws. So while immigration is complex, I am encouraged by any groups who enter this discussion in good faith and are intent on looking for solutions."
The South Carolina ad features the voice of Rev. Jim Goodroe, director of missions for Spartanburg County Baptist Network, which includes 95 churches that have significant immigrant populations from all over the world. He taped a similar ad that ran in March.
"One of the things we're trying to do is trying to get Christians to first of all think about anything from a Christian perspective, including immigration... and realize that any immigrant is a person first," Goodroe said in a recent interview in Washington. "Immigration is an issue, a subject, but immigrants are people like you and me. At bottom, we need to treat everybody with respect."
Congress is divided on whether changes to the immigration system should allow some of the 11 million people in the country illegally a chance to stay.
The bipartisan Senate bill allows for citizenship status after several years for those who don't have a criminal record and pay fines. But in the House, GOP leaders are mostly discussing a path to legal status short of citizenship.
The House bills currently pending from Republicans address border security, employment verification, temporary agricultural workers, and enforcement of immigration laws, but nothing so far on the status of the 11 million.
The evangelical leaders backing the ad campaign are calling for citizenship.
"I could be a voice for those who are voiceless in my church and congregation," said Felix Cabrera, a Hispanic pastor at a Baptist church in Oklahoma City and one of the pastors in the ad campaign. "I have to deal with the collateral damage our broken immigration system brings to my people."
He said detentions and deportations have broken up families and left U.S.-born children alone in the country without parents. He said the Bible "calls me to love them and welcome them and treat them justly," Cabrera said.
Those involved in the Evangelical Immigration Table said their work represents the grassroots of their congregations, not just church leaders.
"This is not top-down at all. I feel like I'm being brought along by members of my congregation," said Mike McClenahan, pastor at a Presbyterian church in Solana Beach, Calif.
The ad campaign is also running in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.
The ads will compete with other organizations using the congressional recess to encourage House members to disregard the Senate bill - they say a path to citizenship amounts to "amnesty" - and focus instead on border security.