On immigration reform, ‘many’ evangelicals all think alike

On a chilly morning last January, I got up before the sun rose and joined a Chicago-area preacher in his church van.

We drove to a regional deportation center where volunteers minister to illegal immigrants’ relatives before their shackled loved ones are taken to O’Hare International Airport for flights to the U.S. border.

I described the scene this way in a Christian Chronicle story:

CHICAGO — On a dark street, a mother weeps.

At 4:45 a.m., she stands outside a two-story brick building surrounded by razor wire, her sobs drowning out the drum of machinery at a nearby factory.

The Spanish-speaking woman just said goodbye — through a glass panel at a federal deportation center west of Chicago — to her son Miguel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

A minister wearing a beige overcoat and a black knit cap rushes to comfort the mother and pray with her distraught family.

“This is why I come,” says the minister, Bobby Lawson, who pulled a white church van out of the Park Forest Church of Christ parking lot in Matteson, Ill., at 2:53 a.m. that Friday. “These families are getting ripped apart.”

My reporting experience that day enlightened my understanding of the immigration issue — and the real human faces involved. As a result, I identified with the dramatic picture painted this week in a 1,500-word CNN report:

Washington (CNN) – 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.

I thought the CNN reporter did a remarkable job of setting the scene for a meaty exploration of a contentious topic.

Unfortunately, the story quickly fell into the “many” trap already addressed by tmatt this week (boldface emphasis mine):

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.

As tmatt noted, the problem with such references is this: They make a blanket statement that “many” people are saying or doing this or that without supplying concrete evidence of such.

To its credit, CNN provides a detailed account of why some evangelical leaders support immigration reform. However, the report makes it sound like the leaders represent — and speak for — all evangelicals when polls clearly show they do not. From an Associated Press story on the same evangelical coalition:

Many evangelical leaders have actively supported reform in recent years as the number of immigrants has increased in their churches. However, rank-and-file congregants have been slower to take up the issue beyond demands for stronger national borders. In surveys, white evangelicals have generally ranked border security as their top priority. However, about four in ten have told pollsters they would favor an approach giving equal weight to national security and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Granted, AP also uses “many” to describe the evangelical leaders. But at least its brief report provides some specific poll data on where evangelicals stand on immigration reform. (Christianity Today also reported on the evangelical coalition. Meanwhile, ReligionLink published a primer for reporters covering immigration.)

In a nutshell, CNN’s report needs more background on evangelicals’ historical leanings on immigration — and more (any?) data reflecting changes in that demographic’s perspectives on the issue. Both would improve the story immensely.

Besides crucial context, the piece lacks any opposing voices. CNN’s one-sided story ends up reading like a press release for one side. Given the multifaceted nature of the immigration debate, that’s a journalistic shame.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Rodriguez, along with a number of other high-profile evangelical leaders…”

    A number? What is that number? Two? Two million? Eleventy-three?

    The use of “a number of” is as lazy as the use of “many”.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Excellent point, Chris. And thanks, too, for keeping this from being a post with zero comments. :-)

  • Chris Bolinger

    For referring to Sojourners as “liberal-leaning” and contrasting “[m]any evangelical leaders” with “rank-and-file congregants”, Zoll’s AP article earns a FAIL.

  • Pingback: In a twist, vague evangelicals all oppose immigration reform


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