April 9, 2013— -- Ralph Reed has emerged as one of the leading religious advocates for immigration reform, and he's taking sides on thorny policy questions, such as whether undocumented immigrants can become citizens.
Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, has joined other figures on the religious right in endorsing immigration reform. On Tuesday, he officially joined with the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to push Congress to pass reform at a press conference in Miami.
The efforts of the religious right have helped get social conservatives on board with the immigration effort, which may encourage Republicans on the fence to ultimately vote yes.
But unlike some of his religious cohorts who have spoken in favor of broad principles, Reed has weighed in on policies that have sewn division among lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He is proposing a specific plan that would allow some, but not all, undocumented immigrants to eventually seek citizenship.
Under Reed's principles, immigrants who entered the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas could seek citizenship after they meet certain criteria, such as paying fines and back taxes. Those people make up 45 percent of all undocumented immigrants, according to some estimates.
But immigrants who crossed the border illegally, Reed says, should not be guaranteed a path to citizenship.
"We think that if you entered the country illegally to begin with, then it is a mistake to guarantee you a path to citizenship because you then get treated actually better than people who have waited in line for years or in some cases over a decade to enter legally," he said during an interview with ABC/Univision.
Reed believes that immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally should be allowed to apply for a visa that allows them to remain in the country legally, after paying fines and back taxes, and learning English. But not all should be able to seek citizenship, according to Reed.
"We don't say that none of them should ever become citizens, we just don't favor a guaranteed path to citizenship ... for every one of those individuals," he said.
Reed's advocacy may give conservative members of Congress political cover to back immigration reform and his recommendations could provide policy guidelines for some conservatives to latch onto.
Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and Senate are crafting immigration bills that would include a path to citizenship or legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. But those pieces of legislation have not been finalized.
Reed said that he has sent copies of his full plan to every congressional office and has met with leaders in both chambers, including Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate "Gang of Eight" crafting a bill.
Reed's principles also include reforms that would make it easier for spouses and minor children of legal immigrants to reunite with their families in the U.S., modernizing the visa system for high-tech and agricultural workers, and enhancing border security and enforcement.
While his principles on citizenship may not exactly line up with the Gang of Eight's, Reed insists they are close and that he is "very supportive" of Rubio's efforts in the group.
"I think the distance between us and where Marco Rubio is can be measured in inches and not yards or miles," he said.
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos confirmed that the senator met with Reed, and called him and other faith leaders "are an integral part of this debate because so many of them have seen firsthand the human toll of our broken immigration system and understand it's important to fix it."
"Leaving millions of people in the shadows with undetermined legal status isn't a good public policy," he said. "For those who want to step forward ... if they want to play by rules and get right with the law, we believe that public policy ought to allow them to be a part of the American Dream."
Reed first rose to prominence in Republican circles as a Christian conservative activist in the 1990s, and he cites moral and Biblical guidance for his support for immigration reform.
"Remember that in the Bible, the Israelites were commanded by God and the law of Moses to welcome the alien and the sojourner among them," he said. "So it is a biblical principle that you treat the alien and the stranger with kindness."
But there is also a political imperative. Reed believes that immigration could help solve the GOP's problem among Asian and Latino voters. The latter group includes a growing number of evangelicals, who were turned off by the party's strident rhetoric on immigration in past elections.
"This issue has been festering for another eight years since Congress last dealt with it and I think everybody recognizes that it's time to bite the bullet, make the tough calls to get this problem solved," he said.