President Barack Obama explained the executive actions he was taking to prevent the possible deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants during a primetime address on Thursday from the East Wing of the White House.
President Barack Obama works on his immigration speech with Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan and Senior Presidential Speechwriter David Litt in the Oval Office. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)
Many Christian leaders praised the effort, while others – including key Southern Baptist leaders – joined Republican leaders in attacking Obama's action.
Currently, an estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S., with only 1.2 million of them previously protected from possible deportation. Another 4 million could gain protection from Obama's executive actions.
Obama also announced efforts aimed at adding additional resources for more border security and creating new avenues for work permits for some immigrants.
Obama couched his efforts in moral and religious terms throughout the speech. He noted that immigrants "worship at our churches." He also alluded to passages in the Old Testament – especially in Exodus – about how to treat immigrants.
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger," Obama said, "for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Obama, however, repeated some inaccurate claims about undocumented immigrants.
For instance, he suggested they do not pay their "fair share of taxes" and need to go to "the back of the line." The EthicsDaily.com documentary "Gospel Without Borders" refuted both those arguments.
Another problem with contemporary rhetoric noted in the film is the use of the 'i'-word to call undocumented immigrants "illegals."
Obama in the past used this inaccurate language. However, in Thursday's night speech he used the phrase "undocumented immigrants" instead.
Several Christian leaders quickly offered support for Obama's effort, including some prominent conservatives.
Samuel Rodriquez offered his support for Obama's action. Rodriquez, who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, offered an official prayer at the 2012 Republican presidential convention.
Although Rodriquez said an executive action was "not the preferable delivery mechanism," he praised Obama's action.
He argued it "initiates a re-conciliatory prescription necessary in addressing a de facto humanitarian crisis within our borders: millions of God's children created in his image living in the shadows."
"For years, our elected officials sacrificed lives on the altar of political expediency," he added. "For years, rhetorical articulation fell short of redemptive action. For years, we as a nation stood by while families experienced separation, children suffered and national unity lay shattered."
Rodriquez also urged Obama and Congress to "immediately work together" to pass more comprehensive and permanent legislation.
Joel Hunter, a conservative Florida megachurch pastor, who served as a spiritual adviser for Obama even while sometimes criticizing Obama's policies, also praised the executive action.
"I welcome this incremental step," Hunter said. "I look upon it as a partial solution to an ongoing problem and I do see the need in human terms, in terms of keeping families together and bringing people out of the shadows."
While many Christian leaders across the political spectrum praised Obama's executive actions, Southern Baptist leaders quickly criticized it.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned a piece for Time magazine to attack Obama's executive actions as "an unwise and counterproductive move."
Although Moore acknowledged that "the Republican House has done nothing" on the issue, he still believes Obama should have waited for them.
Moore claimed the results of the midterm election brought "a new reality in Washington" even though it did not change the fact that Republicans still hold a majority in the House.
Despite the failure to work together for the past six years, Moore insisted Republican leaders deserved more time.
"The Republicans have said that they want to demonstrate that they can govern, and that they want to find areas where they can work together with the White House," Moore wrote. "Why not give them the opportunity to do so?"
Moore urged Republicans in Congress to still work with Obama to pass more comprehensive immigration reform.
"My hope is that the Republicans in Congress will not allow the President's actions here to be a pretext for remaining in the rut of the status quo," he explained. "Too many people are harmed by this broken system, many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ. The lives of immigrant families, made in the image of God, are too important for political gamesmanship."
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a harsher critique of Obama.
Mohler claimed that the president "was unilaterally changing the way America addresses the question of immigration" and therefore took a move that "will be remembered as one of the most significant in recent years in terms of American constitutional history."
He further called Obama's action "an executive branch overreach" and "an overreach of Presidential power that truly endangers the separation of powers that is at the heart of our constitutional form of government."
Mohler briefly acknowledged that Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both issued executive orders on immigration deportations. Yet, Mohler dismissed the comparison by claiming, "Those executive orders were very small compared to the vast and sweeping action President Obama announced last night."
Despite Mohler's assertions, the 1986 congressional action signed by Reagan that empowered Reagan and Bush to act did not set a size limitation on how many undocumented immigrants a president could shield.
Thus, political scientists Tobin Grant and Daniel Bennett explained how Obama's action was legal.
The rhetoric of Mohler and Moore pales to that of some Republican congressional members who have called Obama a "king" or "monarch," threatened impeachment or even suggested a jail sentence for Obama.
While legal challenges to Obama's executive action remain unlikely to succeed, the question remains if the two parties can work together to craft more comprehensive and more permanent immigration reform legislation.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.