Lifeway study shows evangelicals back immigration reform, increased border security


BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — American evangelicals have complex perspectives on immigration and want a nuanced political response, but most want Congress to act soon.

A Lifeway Research study sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table found evangelicals are increasingly concerned about the number of recent immigrants to the U.S. but still believe Christians have a responsibility to care for those who are in the country illegally. While most want to secure the border to prevent additional illegal immigration, evangelicals also advocate for a path to citizenship for those already in the country.

“While many evangelicals fear that our nation is harmed by the volume of recent immigrants, more feel responsible to show compassion,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “The urgency continues to grow among evangelicals for Congress to act this year to improve laws around immigration.”

Many evangelicals have a negative perception of the recent number of immigrants to the United States. Half (50%) say they are a drain on economic resources. More than a third see the number as a threat to the safety of citizens (37%) and a threat to law and order (37%), while 28% say they are a threat to traditional American customs and culture.

Yet, a large percentage of evangelicals see the number coming to the country as an opportunity or even an improvement. Two in 5 evangelicals say the number of immigrants presents an opportunity to introduce them to Jesus Christ (40%) and to show them love (39%). Around a quarter (26%) believe immigrants represent an improvement to America’s cultural diversity, and 14% say they’re a boost to entrepreneurial activity.

“It is not surprising that the share of evangelicals who believe that the arrival of immigrants presents an economic challenge or a threat to safety or order has increased, given both very real issues at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years and the large number of migrants reaching American cities where they are legally barred from working, providing for themselves and contributing economically,” said Matthew Soerens, national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table. “But it’s also important to note that ‘threat’ and ‘opportunity’ responses are not mutually exclusive. There are many evangelicals who both believe there are economic challenges related to immigration and see the arrival of immigrants as an evangelistic opportunity.”

The study surveyed both self-identified evangelicals and those who qualify as an evangelical based on key theological beliefs. Self-identified evangelicals are increasingly concerned about the number of recent immigrants. While 33% saw them as an economic drain in a 2022 Lifeway Research study, 49% feel that way now. The percentage who sees the recent number as threatening is also on the rise, with the percentage of those saying immigrants are a threat to safety climbing from 32% to 38% and those saying immigrants are a threat to law and order growing from 30% to 37%. Additionally, fewer see the number as an opportunity to show love (down from 46% to 38%), an improvement to cultural diversity (33% to 26%) or a boost to entrepreneurship (18% to 14%).

Still, when asked about legal immigration, 80% of evangelicals believe it is helpful, and around 3 in 5 say we should at least keep the current number of approved legal immigrants. Specifically, 23% say legal immigration is helpful to the U.S. and we should increase the number of legal immigrants approved in a year. More than a third (36%) believe it is helpful and we should maintain the current number approved. Another 21% say it is helpful, but we should decrease those approved. Meanwhile, around 1 in 5 believe legal immigration is harmful, including 13% who say we should decrease the number approved and 7% who believe we should completely stop approving legal immigrants.

“Few evangelicals are interested in closing the door to immigrants. Rather a large majority support legal immigration,” said McConnell. “Growing fears about the recent volume of immigrants were voiced the month after media reports of extremely high immigration numbers in December.”

Evangelicals believe both they and the U.S. as a whole have responsibilities regarding immigrants entering our country. More than half (55%) say Christians have a responsibility to assist immigrants even if they are here illegally, while 70% say followers of Jesus have a responsibility to care sacrificially for refugees and other foreigners. Additionally, evangelicals believe the U.S. has a moral responsibility to accept refugees (71%) and specifically refugees fleeing persecution (72%). A similar number support legislation that would allow Afghan allies evacuated by the U.S. military to apply for permanent status after vetting (75%).

“Large numbers of evangelicals accept responsibility within the Christian community to care for refugees, and a majority feel the same about caring for immigrants here illegally,” said McConnell. “Many evangelicals don’t believe our nation has the option of turning our back on those fleeing persecution.”

Thinking about national responsibilities, more than 3 in 4 evangelicals (77%) say it is important that Congress passes significant new immigration legislation in 2024. Among self-identified evangelicals, the percentage of those who view passing new legislation to address immigration this year is higher now (78%) than those who said the same in 2022 (71%) and 2015 (68%).

Within that legislation, evangelicals have priorities they believe should be reflected. Around 9 in 10 say they support potential immigration legislation that respects the rule of law (93%), ensures fairness to taxpayers (93%), respects the God-given dignity of every person (91%), protects the unity of the immediate family (91%) and guarantees secure national borders (91%). Additionally, 3 in 4 (75%) support legislation that establishes a path toward citizenship for those who are here illegally, are interested and meet certain qualifications for citizenship. Each of those has similar levels of support among self-identified evangelicals compared to 2022 but higher levels than in a 2015 Lifeway Research study.

When asked about changes to current immigration law, 78% of evangelicals say they would support changes to immigration laws that would both increase border security and establish a process for those who are currently in the U.S. illegally to earn legal status and apply for citizenship if they pay a fine, pass a criminal background check and complete other requirements during a probationary period. Around 2 in 3 (65%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported an immigration law that did both.

Additionally, 80% would specifically support bipartisan immigration reform that strengthens border security, establishes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children (commonly referred to as “Dreamers”) and provides a reliable number of screened, legal farmworkers.

“Evangelicals’ approach to public policy solutions has not changed significantly,” said Soerens, who also serves as the vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief. “The vast majority want policies that ensure secure borders, treat all people with dignity, protect family unity, allow immigrants who are unlawfully present to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship and ensure the U.S. remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.”

Two in 3 U.S. evangelicals (66%) say they are familiar with what the Bible teaches about how immigrants should be treated. They also point to the Bible as one of the top influences for their thinking on immigration.

A quarter of evangelicals (26%) say the Bible has influenced their perspective on the topic more than any other source. Fewer point to the media (15%), immigrants they have observed (13%), friends and family (12%) and immigrants they have interacted with (11%). Even fewer say they’re most influenced on immigration by the positions of elected officials (6%), their local church (4%), national Christian leaders (2%) and teachers or professors (2%).

When asked to identify their top three influences, friends and family (45%) moves to the top. Slightly fewer point to the Bible (43%) and immigrants they have observed (40%). Around a third place the media (36%) and immigrants they have interacted with (32%) in their top three influencers. Fewer say the positions of elected officials (28%), their local church (22%), national Christian leaders (14%) and teachers or professors (10%).

There has been a lot of movement among who has influence on evangelical views on immigration. The largest growth among self-identified evangelicals has been the number indicating the Bible has been most influential. It has grown from 12% in 2015 to 21% in 2022 and 26% in 2024.

Half of evangelicals have had the opportunity to interact with and observe immigrants within their congregation, as 51% say their church has at least some first-generation immigrants. Additionally, some evangelicals are immigrants themselves. One in 5 are either first- or second-generation immigrants. Almost 1 in 10 U.S. evangelicals (8%) was born outside of the United States, and 12% are the children of at least one parent born outside of the country.

For some evangelicals, the church provided them with personal experience meeting and serving immigrants. Three in 10 (31%) say they have heard immigration discussed at their local church in a way that encouraged outreach to immigrants in their community. Twice as many (60%) say that was not the case.

Around 1 in 3 (32%) say their church currently has a ministry or outreach that serves refugees or other immigrants, while 39% say no and 29% aren’t sure. Additionally, 34% say they have been involved in such a ministry, 13% currently and 21% in the past. Two in 3 (66%) have not participated.

Whether or not they are actively involved in ministry to immigrants, evangelicals would like to hear more about it from their churches. More than 4 in 5 (82%) say they would value hearing a sermon that teaches how biblical principles and examples can be applied to immigration in the U.S. Among self-identified evangelicals, 81% would value hearing such a sermon. That’s higher than in 2022 (77%) and 2015 (68%).

“While less than one-third of evangelicals say they have heard immigration discussed in their church context, 82% say they would like to hear a biblically-focused sermon on this timely topic,” said Soerens. “Pastors who may fear that a biblical message on the theme of immigration may be divisive in an election year should know that their people are hungry for discipleship. In the absence of pastoral leadership, however, most are still primarily influenced by extra-biblical sources.”