President Obama wants to change the federal immigration law more than he seemingly wants to change the national ethos related to the undocumented.

Changing the former without changing the latter leaves the nation divided. It breeds resentment against immigrants.

Obama calls for comprehensive immigration reform, while he uses language that feeds negative narratives about the undocumented, narratives that dominate our culture, one of which is that the undocumented must pay their taxes – as if they don’t pay their taxes.

Asked at a news conference shortly after the presidential election about his plans for immigration reform, Obama spelled out his conditions for “a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country.”

Obama said, “It’s important for them to pay back taxes.”

When Obama gave one of his few major speeches on immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, in May 2011, he said that comprehensive immigration reform would require the undocumented to do a number of things. He said that “they’ve got to pay their taxes.”

The White House’s current immigration page underscores what the undocumented must do “before they can get in line to become eligible for citizenship.” They can “get on the right side of the law by registering … paying taxes and a penalty, and learning English.”

Clearly, Obama believes the undocumented are not paying their taxes. And he is not alone.

Some evangelical leaders hold the same beliefs.

Claiming to represent 100,000 churches, they have launched a much-publicized push for immigration reform.

Aside from exaggerating the idea that evangelicals have been converted and now favor federal action to reform the immigration system, they feed a negative narrative about the undocumented.

The Evangelical Immigration Table coalition has a generic statement of principles for immigration reform. One of the six principles is “fairness to taxpayers.”

What exactly does that mean? Does that mean the undocumented have taken advantage of American taxpayers by not paying their taxes?

One of the Southern Baptist Convention signatories said his denomination supports a path to citizenship if “they” do a number of things, such as paying their back taxes. He said in 2007 that “an illegal immigrant” must “agree to pay back taxes.” He repeated the same tax phrase in 2010.

He thinks the undocumented don’t pay taxes – as apparently do other members of the coalition.

In their push to change the federal law, they are undermining a positive attitude about the undocumented in their churches by feeding pre-existing negative attitudes.

Language matters. The wrong language sabotages good causes.

When a delegation of Baptists went to the White House in March 2012, I expressed concern to Felicia Escobar, senior policy advisor for the Domestic Policy Council, about how language distorts an understanding of the plight of the undocumented.

I referenced harmful language, including the claim the undocumented don’t pay taxes. She acknowledged that language matters. has voiced concern about the negative narrative about the undocumented and taxes. A 2012 editorial cited a Chamber of Commerce resource that speaks to seven myths.

“Undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes, just like every other consumer in the United States. Undocumented immigrants also pay property taxes – even if they rent housing,” reads the pamphlet.

“Undocumented immigrants provide an enormous subsidy to the Social Security system in particular. Each year, Social Security taxes are withheld from billions of dollars in wages earned by workers whose names and Social Security numbers do not match the records of the Social Security Administration (SSA),” said the Chamber. “According to the SSA, ‘a major portion’ of these mismatched wages are earned by undocumented immigrants using fake documents.”

We explore the issues of taxes and the fact that the undocumented subsidize the Social Security system in our documentary “Gospel Without Borders.”

An interview that did not make the final cut of the documentary was with a woman at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Clarksville, Ark., who had entered the United States from Mexico without papers in 1978.

When I asked her about the claim that the undocumented didn’t pay taxes, she put her hands on her hips and wagged her head side-to-side. The now naturalized citizen said, “I have never seen an immigrant go to the grocery store and say, ‘I’m illegal. I don’t have to pay taxes.'”

Drive through any low-income, predominantly Hispanic community. Notice the offices that provide tax services to immigrants – immigrants pay taxes and know the importance of paying taxes.

Federal immigration reform is needed.

Changing the negative ethos and misunderstanding about the undocumented in churches is also needed.

Changing the law while feeding negative attitudes – myths – is counterproductive.

We need to get the language right. Let’s stop feeding myths while talking about comprehensive immigration reform.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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