Faith Leaders to Obama: "Time Is Now" for Immigration Reform

PHOTO: President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn to the Oval Office of the White House from Marine One, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

President Obama on Friday met with over a dozen faith leaders at the White House who urged quick action to pass immigration reform.

After speaking with the president for around one hour, participants came away hopeful that Obama could sign a comprehensive immigration overhaul into law this year.

"This is the year," Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told ABC/Univision after the meeting. "I walked out of that meeting with a greater sense of optimism, with the strong chance of passing comprehensive immigration reform this year."

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, the president of the National Latino Evangelical Association, echoed that sentiment.

"The urgency of immigration reform is now. We recognize there is a narrow political window and there is strong support for it," Salguero said. "We want to see strong bipartisan support, we don't want it to suffer inertia from partisanship or scoring political points."

Fourteen leaders attended the meeting, representing Catholic, evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Mormon churches as well as Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. Senior White House aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Muñoz were also present.

The meeting came as bipartisan groups of lawmakers continue to draw up an immigration reform legislation. Obama and lawmakers have said they want a bill to pass Congress as soon as this summer.

"The president reiterated his strong commitment to a pathway to earn[ed] citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well as his administration's emphasis on cracking on down on employers ... who exploit immigrant workers and undermine American workers, and continuing to strengthen our border security," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters after the meeting on Friday.

Religious groups have played a key role in organizing public support for immigration reform, especially from conservative churchgoers who may not otherwise support the effort.

Clergy members who attended the meeting said the president appeared committed to working with Republicans in Congress to pass an immigration overhaul that contains a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. They stressed that another key element is reforming the visa process to make it easier for immigrants to reunite with their families in the U.S.

"I heard a president that is willing to cooperate with the other side of the aisle," Rodriguez said. "I saw a president who basically committed himself to doing what it takes to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Evangelical leaders said they would continue to appeal to worshippers to support immigration reform. Salguero said that evangelical groups have launched an effort to preach about the religious and moral imperative for immigration reform and have organized a campaign to call members of Congress to urge them to support a bill.

The president's message was that "there is more than politics involved here, there are moral issues involved here and that is what the faith community is lifting up. He thanked us for that," said Jim Wallis, head of the Christian group Sojourners. "The faith community is becoming a political game changer on this issue."

Rodriguez said that his hope is that evangelical churches could convince both conservative worshippers and lawmakers to back an immigration overhaul.

"Our role is not necessarily to speak to the Nancy Pelosi's of the world," Rodriguez said. "Our role is to speak to the other side, to folks who have opposed comprehensive immigration reform...The Republican Party and the conservative movement must cross the Jordan of immigration reform to enter into the promised land of the Hispanic vote."

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