Advocates of a far-reaching overhaul of the nation's immigration system are hoping to use their allies on the religious right to prod the Republican Party to embrace reform.
They aim to use a broad consensus among religious leaders and institutions to promote a rewrite of immigration laws as a moral imperative, mobilizing conservatives to pressure the Republican politicians they have long supported on the basis of other issues.
Their efforts come as the GOP is reassessing its position on immigration, including opposition to normalizing the status of immigrants who entered the country illegally.
In a sobering report released Monday, the Republican National Committee recommended that the party embrace and champion comprehensive immigration change.
Religious groups — some of which have previously sat on the sidelines in the debate to avoid becoming embroiled in a politically divisive issue — are aiming for a new and potentially divisive push.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of religious groups that represent more than 100,000 churches, are making grass-roots phone calls and a widespread effort to get Christians to read 40 Bible verses that deal with how to treat strangers and neighbors as part of a prayer challenge called "I Was a Stranger."
The name is taken from a verse in Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
The main targets of the effort are lawmakers who in the past have paid closer attention to constituent concerns about amnesty or whether illegal immigrants drive up the costs of government services.
"I think in the past many of us thought it would be the economic argument that would bring Republicans along," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the group America's Voice. "But for many Republicans . . . this has become viewed more as a cultural issue — almost a social issue. So when you have pastors preaching that the Bible says we should welcome the stranger in 40 different ways, that becomes a very powerful message."
The campaign includes newer members of Congress who were not in Washington in 2007, the last time Congress had an extensive immigration debate.
For Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican, the appeal came a week ago from his parish priest as he was leaving Mass back home in Fort Mill, S.C.
"I asked him, 'How are we doing on this?' " said the Rev. John Giuliani, a Catholic priest who said he believes the laws should extend to illegal immigrants the human dignity he says Bible demands. "I tell him, 'Be open. We have to move in a direction that's going to help the most people.' "
For Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a Baptist, the appeal came in his office from top officials with the Southern Baptist Convention.
"When I begin an immigration discussion, I start first and foremost with the idea that this is a person created in the image of God and they have value because of that," Lankford said. "That's the same spot they're beginning from as well."
Last week, the Evangelical Immigration Table announced that it would air ads on 15 Christian radio stations in South Carolina, pushing a change in immigration laws that would strengthen border security and be fair to taxpayers — but also include a controversial path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. Conservatives have long opposed a path to citizenship because they consider it an amnesty that rewards breaking the law.
The goal of the ads is partly to bolster Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of a bipartisan group of eight senators hoping to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation next month.
Graham is being targeted by an ad campaign from Numbers USA, which favors lower immigration levels and opposes normalizing the status of those here illegally.
"Who elected Lindsey Graham to demand millions more immigrant workers when so many South Carolinians are jobless?" the group asks in the ad. Graham is up for reelection in 2014 and could face a primary challenge.
In a state with thousands of deeply religious Republican voters, the ads also are meant to influence Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who was recently appointed chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, which will review any proposed changes.
They feature the voice of Rev. Jim Goodroe, director of missions for the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, a group of dozens churches that includes the one Gowdy and his family attend.
"Besides being a very well educated and learned man, he is a very committed Christian who tries to apply Biblical values in his personal and public life," Goodroe said. "And immigration reform has a lot of aspects that are rooted in Biblical values."
Mulvaney, Lankford and Gowdy all belong to the tea party class elected in 2010, a deeply conservative group but one motivated more strongly by issues of government spending and fiscal policy.
In 2007, a bill that would have revamped legal avenues to enter the country and extended the possibility of eventual citizenship for millions already living here illegally crumbled on the Senate floor, in part because of a grass-roots backlash from conservative voters.
Religious leaders say their churches remained largely silent then. But they promise that they will be more engaged this time.
Opponents have promised to wage a similarly vigorous campaign as the one six years ago. Roy Beck, the head of Numbers USA, called the new coalition of religious leaders "impressive." But he said his group's surveys of church members show that attitudes in the pews have changed little.
"This time around, what's different is that you've got a pretty good size group of evangelical leaders on board," he said. "But does it mean nothing with evangelical voters?"
But with growing immigrant membership in many evangelical churches, religious leaders say the congregations are now more aware of the real-life challenges of the system, with its long wait times for legal entry and deportations that divide families.
"Sometimes politicians say, 'My base believes X. I need to check with them.' But our congregations have hundreds of thousands of people who will say, 'Hey, we stand for this,' " said the Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a network of Hispanic evangelicals that has set up meetings between ministers and more than two dozen congressional Republicans in recent weeks.
It is not year clear whether the campaign will be successful. Like a number of House Republicans, for instance, Mulvaney expressed interest in legislation that would allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country to achieve some kind of legal status that would fall short of full citizenship.
That falls short of what many religious leaders have been advocating, including Mulvaney's priest. But the idea represents a significant shift for a GOP whose presidential candidate in 2012 advocated making life so difficult for immigrants that they would choose to "self deport."
But Mulvaney said he thinks it already has helped calm the tone of the discussion to the point where it has barely registered at recent South Carolina town hall meetings-, even as Washington gears up for a major debate.
Mulvaney is one of three South Carolina lawmakers who prayed in the Capitol chapel before casting a key vote against a measure to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. He said he is now working through how to balance the moral case for treating newcomers with compassion with a desire to respect the law and be fair to those who followed it.
"I think a lot of folks are having open minds on this," Mulvaney said. "We're very early in the discussion. But it's a discussion we're now having — and we weren't having before."