Evangelicals implore GOP presidential hopefuls to tone down immigration rhetoric

A group of conservative evangelicals is reaching out to the Republican presidential field and imploring them to tone down their rhetoric on illegal immigration.

Dr. Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Dr. Matthew Staver, dean of Liberty University Law School, told reporters today that they admire Gov. Rick Perry for standing by his 2001 decision to allow illegal immigrants who are residents of Texas to go to college at in-state rates. Many of Perry's rivals, as well as many more conservative activists, have laid into Perry for his declaration in a recent debate that people who oppose the Dream Act for minors who were brought to the country as children have no heart. (The studio audience at that debate vigorously booed him.)

"I want to endorse Gov. Perry for standing up for what's right," Land said. He added that he is not endorsing Perry or any candidate for president.

Staver also praised Perry, and said he was personally trying to convince Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain to follow Perry's lead on the issue. Both Staver and Land think that there should be a federal path to legal status for illegal immigrants who pay back taxes and pass background checks.

"That dialogue is still going on," he said.

Staver singled out Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for bypassing the opportunity for a substantive conversation about immigration reform in favor of efforts to bait Perry on the issue.

"When Rick Perry was the front runner, [Romney] constantly attacked Perry regarding illegal immigration and I think that was not conducive to having a good dialogue on this issue," Staver said. "And then Herman Cain attacked Rick Perry saying he's not in favor of securing the border. First of all, that's not true . . . . It doesn't help [to create] a rational dialogue."

But a recent Washington Post poll shows that a candidate's support for in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants may hurt him or her in the election. By a ratio of more than 2 to 1, Americans say they are less likely to vote for someone who supports that policy. And among Republican respondent, that figure is dramatically higher: a 5 to 1 ratio. Most Americans are also against increasing the number of visas for high-skilled legal immigrants, a reform that businessmen such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg--and Romney--have long advocated.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said that he wants the candidates to sign a pledge saying they will eschew anti-immigrant rhetoric. "I understand that we are anti-illegal immigration and anti-amnesty, I get that," he said. "But I never hear that we are also pro-legal immigration and pro-Hispanic Americans." No candidate has yet agreed to sign Rodriguez's pledge.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Dr. Land is not endorsing Gov. Perry or any candidate for president.

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