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Originally published March 14, 2013 at 9:01 PM | Page modified March 14, 2013 at 10:10 PM

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An evangelical pitch for immigration reform

Special to The Seattle Times

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I’ve reported on sensitive subjects — the Iraq war, Russian politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to name a few — but the topic I know will always light up my inbox with heated responses is immigration.

It seems the one thing conservatives and liberals can agree on is that the system is broken. But attempts to reform immigration have ended in failed bills and partisan bitterness.

So when I heard of the Washington Compact, a new coalition of diverse supporters of immigration reform — from the Association of Washington Business to growers east of the mountains and progressive pastors in Seattle — I was intrigued.

The compact proposes basic principles for guiding reform, including keeping families together, supporting a successful economy and encouraging law enforcement to focus on criminal activities rather than immigration violations.

Similar coalitions have been created in states like Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. And an organization called the Evangelical Immigration Table has been organizing evangelical Christians around the issue.

“We are strangers in the land,” says Maria-Jose Soerens, a mental-health counselor who recently started organizing for the group.

Soerens’ Seattle office is cozy and candlelit. It’s a room she says has seen “countless tears” as she’s conducted mental-health evaluations for immigrants facing deportation.

Soerens is taking the Immigration Table’s “I Was a Stranger Challenge,” which asks individuals and congregations to read one Bible passage about “strangers” — what they argue serves as a kind of biblical code word for immigrants — every day for 40 days as a way of placing the immigration debate in a religious context.

“Jesus himself is a refugee baby you know?” she says recounting the holy family’s trek through the desert, a journey that reminds her of the experience of many immigrants. “When I hear the stories of people crossing the desert ... and the vulnerability and needing God’s grace and the help of community, these are core to the Christian message.”

Soerens herself is an immigrant (she came from Chile on a student visa) and tentatively describes herself as a Democrat, but many evangelicals in support of immigration reform are more conservative.

Regardless, Soerens says her outreach efforts so far have been positive.

“(I am) like ‘Hey, would you sign up for ... this initiative at the state level to promote comprehensive sensible immigration reform?’ ” she says, describing the recent emails and phone calls. “The answer has been ‘Yes, and thank you for asking.’ ”

Dr. Joseph Castleberry, president of Northwest University in Kirkland — which he describes as a “rigorously Christian” school where most students identify as evangelical and at least half of the population votes Republican — acknowledges that the immigration debate remains controversial within his community.

“I haven’t voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter,” says Castleberry in a gentle southern accent somewhat reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, “So I’m a Republican and I’m a conservative, but I also believe in justice.”

Castleberry’s beliefs are informed by his 20 years as a missionary in Latin America — something he says gives him a global perspective on the debate.

But he’s also got numbers on his mind. He says 30 percent of his denomination, the Assemblies of God, is Latino. “If it weren’t for those Latinos joining our church in the last 20 years or so we would have gone down in numbers. So immigrants have been a significant factor in the renewal of our church.”

Castleberry is careful to say that he speaks for himself and not the institution he leads.

“Not everyone at Northwest will agree with me on these issues,” he says, explaining the school has no position on immigration.

But Castleberry is confident that, despite differences of opinion, comprehensive immigration reform can be achieved. “We can solve this issue. We’re a great country and Americans want to do the right thing.”

Looking forward to your emails in my inbox tomorrow.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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