By Rev. Tim Moore
On the eve of the midterm elections and with a migrant caravan headed toward the U.S., President Trump is doubling down on the immigration rhetoric and policies he believes won him the presidency. But while the president’s base may be energized by the call for a secure border, other elements of the administration’s immigration policy are less popular — and risk alienating the white evangelical voters who voted for him in 2016, particularly here in Texas.
To be sure, white evangelical voters largely approve of the president’s strong focus on border security. According to a LifeWay Research survey, 92 percent believe that ensuring secure borders should be a priority in immigration policy. But it’s a mistake to presume that white evangelicals’ support for secure borders means they are reflexively anti-immigrant.
The “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of children from their parents earlier this year was opposed by most white evangelicals, many of whom had a visceral reaction to images and audio of small children being ripped from their mothers. Evangelical leaders spoke out forcefully against the policy, which was part of why President Trump halted it by executive order on June 20.
In recent days, though, the president has publicly considered re-starting a form of family separation: “If they feel there will be separation, then they won’t come,” he has said. Though the evidence suggests the initial family separation policies did not effectively deter desperate families from migrating, re-starting any form of this policy could deter some evangelicals from showing up to the polls.
Additionally, the president’s broken promise to facilitate the admission of persecuted Christians into the U.S. as refugees has largely upset his evangelical base, who cheered his commitment to helping Syrian Christian refugees shortly after his inauguration. But in fiscal year 2018, just 20 Syrian Christians were able to come to the U.S. as refugees, down by 94 percent from the rate of admissions during the last few months of the Obama administration. The number of persecuted Iraqi Christians admitted has dropped by more than 98 percent in the past two years, and the admission of Iranian Christians has dropped by 99 percent.
While mainstream media has focused primarily on a “Muslim ban,” the fact that persecuted Christians are being kept out has not gone unnoticed by evangelical and conservative media outlets. Many evangelicals feel betrayed by an administration whose anti-immigration tendencies seem to have outweighed concern for protecting persecuted religious minorities.
The recent announcement of a further reduction in the ceiling for refugee resettlement, to a historically-low 30,000, means that the number of persecuted Christians finding safety in the U.S. is only likely to decline further.
Indeed, while there’s little doubt that most white evangelicals will still vote for Republican candidates in the midterm elections, even a small percentage who defect to the Democrats – or, more likely, who are sufficiently put-off by both parties that they stay home altogether on Election Day – could make the idea of “turning Texas blue” a reality.
As a Southern Baptist pastor who values the religious freedom that the Republican Party has historically championed, I am troubled by the president’s broken promise, and I believe that recent immigration issues need to be met by people of faith with great empathy and sincere charity of heart.
If President Trump wants to avoid having not only his border security goals but all of his policies blocked by a Democratic majority in Congress, he’d do well to restart the refugee resettlement program and avoid policy changes that negatively impact vulnerable children — and do so quickly.
Moore is the senior pastor of Walk Worthy Baptist Church in Austin.