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Catholics, other Christians support immigration reform, but say faith plays small role

Views on immigration by select race and religionSeveral prominent U.S. Catholic bishops called attention to immigration reform today in Nogales, Ariz., along the border with Mexico. The bishops celebrated Mass and said they would “pray for and remember” the migrants who have died trying to cross the border. Their goal, they said, was to highlight “the human consequences of a broken immigration system and call upon the U.S. Congress” to fix it. Immigration reform also came up during last week’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis.

It’s not just Catholic leaders who are speaking out over reform. Some large Protestant evangelical organizations are strong supporters of immigration reform, as are some Mormon and mainline Protestant leaders. They have framed the issue as a moral one, with both Christian and Jewish leaders citing a verse from the book of Leviticus: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.”

Three-quarters of American adults say that immigrants living in the United States illegally should be able to stay, according to our 2014 survey. Catholics as a whole closely resemble the general public on this question, though Hispanic Catholics are much more supportive than non-Hispanic white Catholics of allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country (91% vs. 70%).  Like Catholics, majorities of other religious groups also support allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.

Half of Americans – including 59% of Catholics – say it’s extremely or very important to them for President Obama and Congress to pass significant new immigration legislation this year. Not surprisingly, the issue is of particular concern to Hispanic Catholics, 73% of whom say passing immigration legislation should be an extremely or very important priority for political leaders this year. Among white Catholics and people from other racial and religious backgrounds, by contrast, half or fewer attach this level of importance to immigration reform. 

While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is pushing for legislative action on immigration, it also recently asked Obama to use his executive powers to limit deportations. In February, we asked Americans whether the increased number of deportations of undocumented immigrants in recent years is a good thing or a bad thing. The public is evenly split on this issue (45% say it’s a good thing vs. 45% bad thing), as are U.S. Catholics (47% say it’s a good thing vs. 46% bad thing).

When it comes to prioritizing immigration reform and views of deportations, differences between the parties and among racial and ethnic groups are as large as or larger than the divisions among religious groups. Far more Republicans than Democrats say that increased deportations in recent years have been a good thing, and Hispanics are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites and blacks to say passing immigration legislations is a very or extremely important thing to do.

And a survey we conducted in 2010 found that just 7% of U.S. adults said their religious beliefs were the biggest influence on their thinking regarding illegal immigration. It was far more common for people to cite their personal experience (26%), education (20%) or what they have seen or read in the media (20%) as the most important influence on their thinking about this topic.