WASHINGTON (AP) -- Evangelical leaders said Monday they will support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of immigration legislation, the first time they've taken an affirmative stance on the contentious issue.
Jim Wallis, head of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, said it's part of a "sea change" in the evangelical community, driven in part by the increasing numbers of immigrants in congregations. He said evangelical leaders have concluded that "we don't believe there are second-class images of God, and therefore we don't believe in a second-class status for people who are willing to follow an earned path to citizenship."
Sojourners is part of a coalition of evangelical groups called the Evangelical Immigration Table that has been lobbying for an immigration overhaul to bring the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants into legal status. Before Monday the groups had stopped short of advocating for citizenship, but they told reporters on a conference call that they've now concluded it's appropriate as religious leaders to support citizenship as well.
It's a step that may go farther than some members of evangelical congregations support, particularly those who are more politically conservative, but the leaders insisted that once the issue is viewed from the perspective of the Bible's injunction to welcome strangers, there's surprising agreement.
Legalization short of citizenship "does not bestow upon the recipient the full measure of God's grace and redemption," said Robert Gittelson, head of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
The announcement comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate works to finish sweeping legislation by next month that would create a path to citizenship, as well as strengthen border security, install new measures to keep employers from hiring illegal immigrants, and improve legal immigration. The fate of the legislation is uncertain, especially in the GOP-led House, and the religious leaders said they would be lobbying lawmakers for passage.
It's all part of an increasingly prominent role evangelicals have been playing as the immigration debate moves forward. They met recently with President Barack Obama on the issue and last week announced they were running a radio ad on immigration in South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leader on the issue, is up for re-election.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.