When the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez talks about immigration, it is as someone who has witnessed the way a religious community is affected when a family is torn apart by deportation.
"It is personal for me," Rodriguez said, describing deported friends and congregants as "lovely people. These are wonderful, God-fearing, family-loving people."
Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has a naturally boisterous voice that booms with authority. When he speaks about immigration, passion oozes out of every syllable. But his voice softens as he speaks of those close to him who have been deported: an associate pastor's wife, a friend from Sacramento, California, a well-known congregant - the list seems committed to memory.
Even as he relives the heartache, the pastor seems hopeful, if not optimistic.
Rodriguez, along with a number of other high-profile evangelical leaders, many of whom who have worked on immigration reform for decades, are betting that 2013 represents the best opportunity they've ever had to get meaningful reforms passed. Proof of their confidence: A coalition of evangelical groups is launching what many are calling the "largest ever grass-roots push on immigration."
"We have a moral imperative to act," Rodriguez exclaims. "This is the year. This is the evangelical hour to lead in a justice issue."
In the mind of many evangelical leaders, the reverend is right.
Betting On 2013
The coalition is called the Evangelical Immigration Table and it is brought together a diverse mix of evangelical groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners and Focus on the Family.
Though the groups began holding broader discussion two years ago, Monday will serve as the campaign's first concerted push on immigration, with the goal of getting meaningful immigration reform through Congress in 2013.
"I think we have a window of opportunity in these first months of 2013," Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told CNN. "I think there is a real, new conversation on immigration reform."
That window, Land acknowledges, is small and could close at any point. Congress has a number of issues to deal with in the coming year; Republican members of Congress hope to focus on government spending and the debt, while the White House is likely to push for gun control early in the president's second term.
Land, however, says that isn't an excuse.
"I am hopeful that Congress can walk and chew gum and the same time," Land said. "I am hopeful they can deal with more than one issue at the same time."
The group has already released an open letter to Congress and the White House. In it, they the group presses Congress to respect "the God-given dignity of every person" and establish a "path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents."
"As evangelical leaders, we live every day with the reality that our immigration system doesn't reflect our commitment to the values of human dignity, family unity and respect for the rule of law that define us as Americans," the letter states. "Initiatives by both parties to advance commonsense fixes to our immigration policies have stalled in years past."
Since the group's launch last June, organizers have been fundraising and placing people in three states, Colorado, Florida and Texas, to lay the groundwork with local evangelical leaders and politicians. By making these early investments, coalition leaders hope there will be a highly reactive group of evangelicals ready to push for immigration reform.
In addition to local networking, these evangelical leaders have begun lobbying leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate and plan to do more "grass-roots lobbying," including bringing people to Capitol Hill in the future.
According to Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and a leader in the coalition, the group has met with "top-level White House officials" as well as Democratic and Republican leaders "from Chuck Schumer to Lindsey Graham."
"Immigration reform, fixing this broken system, has a chance of being the first thing, maybe the one thing, that I think could really be accomplished in a bipartisan way," Wallis said. "Courageous, bold, bipartisan decisions that do the right thing are not real common (in Washington), but I think this is really possible now."
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