The Surprising South Carolina Evangelicals Who Support Immigration

In conservative Spartanburg County, pastors who worship alongside newly arrived immigrants soften their views on a thorny issue.

Pastor Guillermo Laurent preaches during a Wednesday evening service in Spanish at First Baptist Arcadia. Laurent is the pastor of Iglesia Bautista Renacer, one of the largest Hispanic evangelical churches in South Carolina.
National Journal
Alexia Fernández Campbell
July 16, 2014, 11:35 a.m.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Green­ville and Spartan­burg to ex­plore the changes hap­pen­ing in Up­state South Car­o­lina. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are shap­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

SPARTAN­BURG, S.C. — Something is chan­ging in the most con­ser­vat­ive corner of con­ser­vat­ive South Car­o­lina. Some tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans and evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans are soften­ing to­ward im­mig­ra­tion.

The Up­state re­gion, around Spartan­burg and Green­ville counties, is home to more than 500 evan­gel­ic­al churches and a His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion that has tripled in the past 10 years. It’s a place where “am­nesty” is a dirty word and where un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants are of­ten de­tained for driv­ing without a li­cense.

But loc­al farm­ers, church lead­ers, and busi­ness own­ers who once kept out of the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate have re­cently thrown them­selves in­to the middle of it. In the past year, they’ve held loc­al press con­fer­ences and traveled to Wash­ing­ton to urge their Re­pub­lic­an rep­res­ent­at­ives to leg­al­ize the status of mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

About 55,000 im­mig­rants are be­lieved to be liv­ing il­leg­ally in the South Car­o­lina, ac­cord­ing to 2012 es­tim­ates from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. In Spartan­burg County, most un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants ar­rived from Cent­ral Amer­ica and Mex­ico to work in the area’s factor­ies and fields. They say they con­sider South Car­o­lina the per­fect place to raise a fam­ily, yet they also de­scribe work con­di­tions where they are treated like an­im­als and oc­ca­sion­ally spit on.

South Car­o­lina’s anti-im­mig­rant repu­ta­tion reached an all-time high in 2011 when state le­gis­lat­ors passed a law that made it a crime to rent homes to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and cre­ated a statewide im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment unit. Though the en­force­ment unit still ex­ists, the state has since agreed to nix the rent­al ban, along with a pro­vi­sion that re­quired po­lice to de­tain mo­tor­ists sus­pec­ted of be­ing in the coun­try il­leg­ally.

Most Lati­nos in Spartan­burg are in work­ing-class im­mig­rant fam­il­ies, liv­ing sep­ar­ate lives from the area’s white and black com­munit­ies. However, sev­er­al loc­al schools and hos­pit­als have made an ef­fort to bridge the lan­guage bar­ri­er by hir­ing bi­lin­gual staff and trans­lat­ing ma­ter­i­als in­to Span­ish. A hand­ful of white evan­gel­ic­al churches have star­ted shar­ing their sanc­tu­ar­ies with His­pan­ic churches, partly out of a de­sire to min­is­ter to the grow­ing Latino com­munity and partly from a need to share fin­an­cial ex­penses. Their wor­ship ser­vices are gen­er­ally held at dif­fer­ent times.

Some of these white evan­gel­ic­al church lead­ers have also been work­ing hard to change South Car­o­lina’s hard-line view of im­mig­ra­tion. A large per­cent­age of the state and its law­makers are white evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans — the least likely re­li­gious demo­graph­ic to sup­port a path­way to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute and the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. However, the sur­vey also shows that a sur­pris­ing 66 per­cent of white evan­gel­ic­als across the coun­try fa­vor some type of leg­al status for im­mig­rants without pa­pers.

Mat­thew Blan­ton has been meet­ing with pas­tors across the state to get them on board with the re­form move­ment. He’s the South Car­o­lina or­gan­izer for the Evan­gel­ic­al Im­mig­ra­tion Table, a co­ali­tion of evan­gel­ic­al Chris­ti­ans press­ing for re­form that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship or leg­al status. Blan­ton says too many Chris­ti­ans in the Up­state view the is­sue from a Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al per­spect­ive, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on bib­lic­al teach­ings. “Their world view is formed more by talk ra­dio than by scrip­ture,” said Blan­ton, who is based in Spartan­burg. “That’s a very dan­ger­ous thing.”

Blan­ton or­gan­izes pas­tor lunches and church work­shops to dis­cuss myths about im­mig­ra­tion and bib­lic­al teach­ings that em­phas­ize the im­port­ance of treat­ing im­mig­rants with dig­nity and re­spect. Pro­gress is slow, he says, but about half of the 150 pas­tors he’s met with since Oc­to­ber have signed the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s call for bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

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Many of them have flown to Wash­ing­ton, prayed with Rep. Trey Gowdy in Spartan­burg, and helped or­gan­ize a town hall meet­ing in Span­ish with Rep. Mick Mul­vaney. At the Feb­ru­ary town hall meet­ing near Spartan­burg, Mul­vaney, a tea-party Re­pub­lic­an, pub­licly ex­pressed his sup­port for a path to leg­al status for the first time. Gowdy, who chairs the House Im­mig­ra­tion and Bor­der Se­cur­ity Sub­com­mit­tee, de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest for this series.

Last year, the Im­mig­ra­tion Table aired sev­er­al ra­dio ads in South Car­o­lina to coun­ter­act at­tacks against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham’s sup­port for a path­way to cit­izen­ship.

Jim Goo­droe, dir­ect­or of mis­sions for the Spartan­burg County Baptist Net­work, voiced the mes­sage: “Christ calls evan­gel­ic­als to com­pas­sion and justice, so please join a grow­ing move­ment of Chris­ti­ans ask­ing our polit­ic­al lead­ers for im­mig­ra­tion solu­tions rooted in bib­lic­al val­ues.”

Con­ser­vat­ive ra­dio-show hosts have at­tacked Goo­droe and loc­al pas­tors for their ef­forts, lead­ing to angry calls and dis­ap­prov­ing com­ments at churches. That doesn’t dis­cour­age Jason Lee, pas­tor of Oak Grove Baptist Church in Spartan­burg. He has or­gan­ized church events to bring to­geth­er his pa­rish­ion­ers with mem­bers from the His­pan­ic con­greg­a­tion that wor­ships in their build­ing.

“I do feel that this is the civil-rights is­sue for our gen­er­a­tion,” said Lee, one of the first pas­tors in the state to ad­voc­ate for re­form. “Something has to hap­pen and I’m pray­ing it will be a bi­par­tis­an ef­fort.”