Why Evangelical Leaders’ ‘Grasstops’ Strategy To Push Immigration Reform Could Work

As the immigration reform debate heats up in Washington, advocacy around the issue has become something of a lesson in contrasts.

Progressively-minded immigration activists have flocked around community organizing efforts to lift up the voices of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Just in the past month, progressive activists have held massive marches and rallies in cities like Chicago, New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C., where 200 protesters, along with several Democratic lawmakers, were arrested en masse while publicly supporting immigration reform.

Recent outreach to conservatives on immigration reform has looked strikingly different. Whereas progressive groups have leaned on grassroots organizing tactics to galvanize support on the ground, conservative backers of an immigration overhaul have made ample use of a more “grasstops” method—a strategy that relies heavily on the influence of prominent leadership. On Tuesday, for example, a group of more than 600 conservative leaders—including business owners, police chiefs, and evangelical pastors—from roughly 40 states descended on the Capitol for a “fly-in” day, meeting with nearly 100 Republican lawmakers to pressure them into passing an immigration reform bill.

The idea behind the tactic is simple: conservative leaders who support immigration reform are thought to be more persuasive to Republican lawmakers because they already share so much in common, such as religious beliefs or a passion for small government. The concept isn’t new—the same method was used earlier this year, when high-profile conservative leaders convened in Washington, D.C., to urge the Senate to pass its immigration reform bill. But many believe the tactic could be even more useful now, as political pressure builds on House Republicans to bring immigration reform to a vote before the end of the year.

But the conservative strategy has also attracted criticism—especially for evangelicals. Some have publicly lamented the lack of robust grassroots organizing efforts among evangelicals around immigration reform, complaining that high-profile groups such as the Evangelical Immigration Table, or EIT, are “mostly top-down and not bottom-up.” Others have argued that pro-immigration evangelical pastors don’t genuinely reflect the views of those in their pews, and that their advocacy organizations are filled with “generals without armies.”

To be fair, evangelicals have, in fact, launched a series of grassroots efforts in support of immigration reform, with the EIT hosting hundreds of local “Pray4Reform” events across the country just this past month. More importantly, despite claims of evangelical ambivalence on the issue, polls show that the majority of white evangelicals support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, provided they meet certain requirements.

But many critics are missing a broader point: conservative mobilization often differs from progressive activism—especially among evangelicals, a group that has historically been a key organizing force for the right. American evangelicalism places a high value on charismatic leaders and large churches, encouraging pastors to function as deeply influential thought-leaders for their congregations. This system isn’t especially unique to evangelicalism, of course, but evangelical leaders do tend to have an outsized influence on the hearts and minds of their congregants, including on immigration issues. A study conducted by researchers at Gordon College found that among white evangelicals who heard a positive message about immigration reform from the pulpit, 81.5 percent supported a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants, compared to only 54 percent of white evangelicals overall.

This is especially important given that several of these pastors lead large churches that not only house thousands of worshippers each Sunday, but also sit in the districts of prominent Republican lawmakers.

“I just see (undocumented immigrants) who are hurting and want to contribute to their family…and the system is not working for them,” Jeremy Hudson, a participant in this week’s “fly-in” and pastor of Fellowship Christian Church in House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) Ohio district, told USA Today.

To be sure, progressive faith groups who support immigration reform have also made use of grasstops methods. The Church World Service, for instance, sent hundreds of mostly progressive faith leaders to the offices of Republican lawmakers in early October as part of the immigration-themed National Day of Dignity and Respect. What’s more, traditional grassroots activism has also proven to be an effective tool for persuading lawmakers, with faith-based advocacy groups such as PICO working with secular groups to utilize localized organizing tactics in 30 congressional districts during the August recess. The efforts successfully pressured several Republican House Members to voice preliminary support for immigration reform.

But as Republican House members continue to hold up attempts to pass immigration reform legislation, high-level conservative-to-conservative conversations are likely to be an important part of the effort to garner the votes necessary to finally make immigration reform law. Granted, grassroots organizing is invaluable for any advocacy movement, and real social change almost always happens from the bottom up. But at a time when mounting pressure is slowlyspurringseveral Republicans to come out in favor of passing an immigration reform bill before the end of the year, progressive and conservative advocates alike only stand to gain from a diversified activism strategy that hits lawmakers at multiple points—including the grassroots and the grasstops.