Can talking about immigration help spur reform?

Immigration

A group of migrants, mostly from Cuba, line up to board a bus after crossing the border from Mexico and surrendering to authorities to apply for asylum on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, near Yuma, Arizona. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

(NewsNation) — A group of mostly white Christian women are making immigration reform a sticking point in their politics — but not in the way you may think. 

Immigration policy has long been a political wedge, and many popular reforms have languished in Congress in recent years.

That’s why Tess Clarke started We Welcome, a group trying to help families, friends, church groups and lawmakers have more nuanced conversations about immigration, decoupling religious faith from which party you vote for. 

“For the people who maybe don’t have proximity to immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers … so often what we hear is, ‘I don’t want the partisan talking points,’” Clarke said. “(And in) a lot of advocacy groups, sometimes you feel if you’re not up to speed on everything, you don’t have a seat at the table.”

Clarke is well aware of the high stakes that come when political views are so intertwined with faith. In the early days of the Trump administration, a refugee organization she was a part of started losing support with churchgoers.

“The message was: ‘We didn’t know refugees were dangerous,’” she said. “Then we also saw this rise of people looking for information, looking for what does the Bible say about immigrants.”

Clarke has tapped into a small but documented shift within Millennial and Gen Z Christian voters who grew up in conservative Evangelical communities but no longer identify with their parents’ political beliefs. 

“Ten to 20% of people are with you; 20% never will be,” Clarke said. “We’re focusing on the 60% in the middle, who are really looking … for someone to listen to some of their fears that are legitimate to them and help balance that with the conversation, (for a place) where they feel they don’t feel like a bigot because they have those questions.”

Leveraging relationships

We Welcome are more like a loose association than a strict organization. This allows members to use what works best in their local areas, whether a book club in Pennsylvania or an online Zoom meeting in Oklahoma. 

They encourage volunteering for organizations supporting refugees and immigrants. We Welcome will also take groups to meet with nonprofits and Border Patrol agents at the border, so people can see what circumstances are like for themselves.

Such a trip was a pivotal moment for Brooklyn Stephens, a community liaison from North Carolina.

“There has been this tie between politics and faith, the church, and … a lot of it is fear-driven,” she said.

As a kid, her dad worked in construction, “so I grew up around a lot of people who were from Mexico, kind of (viewing) them as friends or uncles,” she said. “But I didn’t know the journey that had gotten them to that point.”

That changed in 2019, when she took a border trip with We Welcome.

“Really that transformed how I was able to see what was going on in immigration — by hearing people’s stories in person,” she said.

Still, there’s a delicate balance to strike when having conversations with family and friends on such a polarizing issue — and “we’re always living in the tension of it,” Stephens said.

In addition to fighting polarization, the group educates members how to press their lawmakers to find immigration solutions where there is widespread consensus. 

For example, 72% of Americans say they want permanent resettlement for Afghan refugees and 74% say they want a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. Even the slightly divisive proposal — making it easier for people to apply for asylum — has 60% support among the public.

To date, about 10,000 people in their network have contacted lawmakers about The Dream Act, Clarke said, and thousands more contacted President Joe Biden about the status of Afghan refugees. 

Ultimately the key to helping people overcome stereotypes and fear — and work together to find solutions they agree on.

“Relationship is a necessity in this work,” Clarke said. “And it’s not quick.”

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