Welcoming the Alien?
In the spring of 2006, millions of people across the United States took to the streets in what became the largest immigrant rights mobilization this country has ever seen. In downtown Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York, and in hundreds of smaller cities throughout the nation, immigrants marched through the streets to protest a federal bill that would, among other things, make it a felony to aid undocumented immigrants. Dressed in white to symbolize peace and carrying American flags, the protestors raised their collective voices to demand legalization reform that would resolve the legal limbo of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in the United States. On downtown boulevards across the nation, the marchers, who were predominantly but not exclusively Latino, chanted "Aquì estamos, y no nos vamos" (We're here, and we're not leaving), "Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos" (Today we march, tomorrow we vote), and "Sì se puede!" (Yes, we can!). Joining them were prominent leaders from labor unions, civil rights organizations, and ethnic organizations. The American flag became the most prominent symbol of the movement, but marchers also carried crosses, votive candles, and banners of la Virgen de Guadalupe or of local congregations. At one candlelight vigil that began at the historic La Placita church in downtown Los Angeles, a huge crucifix with a semicircular sign proclaiming "Cristo de los Inmigrantes" (Christ of the Immigrants) hovered higher than the sea of American flags, hinting at the critical role of faith in fueling this movement.
Religious leaders were also visible and vocal in these immigrant rights marches. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, leader of the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese, garnered national media attention when he denounced the proposed bill as "un-American." He even sent informational packets on immigration to all parishes in his district. Catholic leaders had initiated the Justice for Immigrants campaign for immigration reform in 2004, but they were not the only religious leaders involved in this campaign. In Los Angeles, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Protestant religious leaders also supported the marches and served as featured speakers.
Clergy and people of faith were not new to the world of immigrant rights advocacy. Many of them had been quietly and steadfastly working for immigrant rights well before these street demonstrations and vigils. What they are doing and how they bring their religion to bear on this activism is the story I tell in this book. Based on interviews and ethnographic research, this book provides a close-up view of religious people working for immigrant rights in three arenas: civil rights in the post-9/11 climate, low-wage workplaces, and at the increasingly dangerous U.S.-Mexico border.
In the late twentieth century the United States once again became a nation characterized by immigration, and Los Angeles emerged as the premier immigrant city, rivaled only by New York for the numbers and diverse national origins of the foreign-born. That much is well known. Less well known are two other facts: Los Angeles—and California more generally—became the hub of the development of anti-immigrant backlash, and finally, coming full circle, this region has emerged as a key site of creative organizing by labor unions and religious groups working for the immigrant rights movement. In all of these ways, Southern California is a harbinger of national immigrant trends. Looking at what happens in Southern California gives us a preview of what is emerging elsewhere with the immigrant rights movement.
Why should the average American care about immigrant rights? Immigrant rights activism is a critical arena in which the future of American democracy is being played out. Popular sentiment toward new immigrants remains ambivalent, even alarmist, but I believe most Americans do not want to see massive deportations or to live in a society like the Gulf states of the Middle East, where transnational migrant workers are enslaved under restrictive temporary contracts. The French model, in which economic, social, and political marginalization of immigrant communities prevails alongside the myth of a culturally homogenous nation, does not appeal either. Yet old-school American assimilation is no longer viable in an era when the steps to legalization and to economic mobility are no longer easily accessible. What is lacking in popular imagination, in media representations, and in the policy proposals of our politicians is a moral blueprint for doing things differently. The Abrahamic notions of loving the alien, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the poor provide ancient admonitions that may temper today's antidemocratic impulses.
This book, then, is based on the assumption that immigrants are not the problem. Rather, the way immigrants are welcomed into the nation is a problem. Looking at how religious activists understand the world and what they do to secure the rights of immigrants allows us to imagine new alternatives for the future. By seeking greater inclusion for immigrants, these liberal religious activists provide us with a guide for negotiating difference in an increasingly global, mobile world.
Legalization for undocumented immigrants remains an important issue. There are, however, different sites of struggle for immigrant rights, and in this book I examine the arenas of civil rights, worker rights, and border rights. This book examines Christian activism at the San Diego–Tijuana border, Muslim civil rights advocacy in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and the Christian and Jewish clergy mobilizations for worker rights of Latino immigrant service workers who staff Los Angeles's hotels and restaurants. Using ethnographic observations, interviews with key leaders and participants in these movements, and analyses of organizations' brochures and documents, I identify the religious "tools" that these social activists are using, or not using, and I analyze the constraints under which they mobilize and their relative successes and foiled attempts.
This religious activism unfolds in a historical moment of tension surrounding American Christianity. The United States remains a deeply Christian country, one where Christian religion has served as a force for progressive social change—and for repression too. Although post-1965 immigration has enriched religious pluralism, the United States has yet to break from the dominant Christian definitions of itself. In this regard, I see two countertendencies that influence religious immigrant rights activists: the re-Christianization of the United States and a deep suspicion of using Christianity, and religion more generally, for political purposes. The rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right, beginning in the late 1970s, contributed to both of these countertendencies. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Islamic fundamentalist violence, and the U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq deepened this tension. This was a time when the American president referred to U.S. military efforts against terrorism as a new "crusade," and the chief law enforcement official of the nation, Attorney General John Ashcroft, publicly declared, "Islam is the religion which God asks parents to sacrifice their children, whereas Christianity is the religion where God sacrifices his son for you."
At the same time, the well-publicized money and sex scandals of Christian televangelists and megachurch leaders and the Catholic Church's institutionalized cover-up of pedophile priests in hundreds of parishes and Catholic schools exposed the moral fallibility and hypocrisy of the nation's top Christian leaders. Intellectuals and secular elites have always criticized organized religion, but in the context of religious violence and scandals galore, these critiques against religion and religious rule have become more vociferous and widespread. Consequently, we see a simultaneous reaffirmation of Christianity alongside a distrust of Christian morality and, more generally, of religious influence in the realm of public policy. The Christian, Jewish, and Muslim activists for immigrant rights operate in this context of tension created by these countertendencies. This tension explains why they are able to use religious tools in some instances but not others.
These religious activists are indicative, I believe, of a new wave of religious people working for progressive causes. They are joined by religious groups working in the antiwar movement, in environmental groups, and in the efforts to end poverty, hunger, racism, and genocide. The pendulum of religious activism in the United States is swinging from right to left, away from repressive regulation of marriage, women's bodies, and Darwinism in school textbooks and toward support for progressive policies to end human suffering and inequalities.
The story I tell in this book is an optimistic one of how religion promotes social justice and inclusion, providing an important alternative to the exclusivist nationalism of the times. Listening to religious activists' stories and looking at their collective actions provides us with an analytic window into religion's contributions to U.S. immigration politics and social justice. In a more utopian vein, this allows us a glimpse into an alternative view of the future, one where strangers may be welcomed.
Religion and Immigrant Rights
The immigration controversy in the United States has been developing for some time. This is, after all, the "age of migration." Nearly 200 million people live in nations other than the one they were born in. The United States, which includes about 34 million foreign-born, is no exception. What is exceptional, and paradoxical, is this: The United States defines itself as "a nation of immigrants," but many Americans feel ambivalent, even downright hostile, to subscribing to this legacy in practice. Consequently, recent immigrants have met with ambivalence, partial inclusion, subordination, blatant discrimination, and hostility. During the spring of 2006 immigrants and their supporters raised their voices in favor of full inclusion.
The competing legislative efforts and the immigrant rights marches in the streets surprised many observers. But this movement did not fall from the sky—it had been brewing for many years and simmering in many pots. People from the religious sector comprise one segment of this mobilization, and their efforts have been complemented and enhanced by those coming out of labor, ethnic, and community organizations. In 2000, the AFL-CIO, reversing a restrictionist policy lasting over a century, began advocating for the legal and economic rights of immigrant workers. Ethnic-identified organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and legal rights groups such as the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union have promoted immigrant rights for decades. Since the 1980s immigrant rights coalitions that bring together smaller community-based organizations have become institutionalized in every major immigrant city in the United States. These national coalitions have also worked on immigrant rights issues for decades, and in the 1990s local organizing around immigrant issues intensified in many cities around the country. In Los Angeles alone, a plethora of community-based organizations devoted to improving the jobs of Latino immigrant workers emerged in the 1990s. Alongside organized labor, ethnic groups, and legal organizations, religious groups have emerged as one of the main sectors where people are mobilizing for immigrant rights.
Mainstream observers often think of religious activists as inherently conservative, exclusively focused on abortion, marriage, sexuality, and curtailing gay rights. This view is understandable, given the high visibility of the Christian Right in recent decades. But many religious activists in the United States are dedicated to what we might call progressive peace and justice causes, such as ending the war in Iraq or solving poverty and homelessness. They do not attract the media attention devoted to the splashier activities of the Christian conservatives or to the explicitly anti-immigrant groups such as the Minutemen, but a segment of these religious-based activists has been working to expand and protect the labor, civil, and migration rights of newcomers.
Why bother looking at them? The answer is simple—new immigrants have stepped onto a slippery welcome mat, and people of faith, both U.S.-born and foreign-born, are trying to provide a more welcoming reception. Faith-based activism for immigrant rights must be understood in the context of the hostile reception that greets new immigrants, the deeply religious nature of both immigrants and the United States, and the changing role of religion in American public life.
The United States is the world's most religious postindustrial nation. No other modern, postindustrial society has a population where the majority of people regularly attend worship services. By contrast, most of the churches and cathedrals of Europe are vacant, serving more as museums for tourists' gazes rather than sacred spaces for the locals. The United States' neighbor to the north, Canada, is also a largely secular society. Congregations in the United States, however, remain lively places of worship. Churches, temples, and mosques serve as sites of civic engagement, social gatherings, and sacred musical performance. And about 90 percent of Americans say "yes" when asked if they believe in God.
Although the United States was founded on the separation of church and state, religion has always played an important role in the American public sphere. The nation itself is seen as sacred. American civil religion, as Robert Bellah argues, permeates society, enabling Americans to see their country through the lens of religious legitimation and righteousness. Elsewhere, too, religion has entered public debates and political campaigns. Religion in the modern world, the sociologist Jose Casanova contends, has undergone a process of deprivatization. No longer confined to the realm of individual, private salvation, consolation, and spirituality, religion now connects public and private morality. Many examples of religion and state intersections abound. Evangelical Christians helped George W. Bush win the elections of 2000 and 2004. In many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, contesting definitions of Islam prevail and are deeply intertwined with international and intrastate politics. Elsewhere around the world, the Catholic Church, especially under Pope John Paul II, helped to oust authoritarian states, promoting democracy and space for the emergence of civil society. In this book, I am most interested in the role of religion, not in elections or in revolutions, but in the ways faith-based activists challenge how immigrants are treated by market and state institutions. This is what Casanova would call "the renormativization of the public economic and political spheres."
The United States is once again a nation of immigration and, importantly, a nation where immigration remains controversial. Immigrant newcomers in the United States hail predominantly from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and religion is salient in their lives both before and after migration. Indeed, many immigrants become more, not less, religious in their new destinations.
Although immigration scholarship once ignored religion, there is now a vast and growing literature on religion and new immigrants. The old model of viewing religion as a facilitator of immigrant assimilation has been replaced by contemporary understandings of religion as an enabler of immigrant incorporation, transnational social life, and ethnic resilience and affirmation. In this model, religion helps to create new hybrid identities. Many studies of immigrant congregations highlight this fact.
Contemporary scholarship has also unveiled the multiple points at which religion may intervene to facilitate risky, dangerous migrant journeys and border crossings, can counter the anomie of immigrant life in the big city, and can serve as a transnational, two-way bridge between the immigrants' old society and the new one. My contribution to this conversation highlights how religion offers a tool box that, in the hands of skillful advocates and activists, can help build a more welcoming democratic, inclusive society. This religious activism arises in the midst of formidable opponents: racialized nativism, embedded restrictionism, and new fears and anxieties about foreigners and immigrants.
From Embedded Liberalism to Embedded Restrictionism
There are no hard rules in social science, but one reliable pattern is this: Repression breeds resistance, and so it is that immigrant restrictionism and racialized nativism have led to calls for fuller inclusion and enfranchisement for immigrants. Immigrant rights activists on the scene today are responding to two decades of deeply entrenched anti-immigrant laws and practices. Although the years from 1965 to 1980 were characterized by greater openness in American immigration policies and politics, the more recent era has been less friendly to immigrants.
The political scientist Gary Freeman suggests that immigration policy in liberal democracies is best explained by embedded liberalism and path dependency. "Path dependency" refers to the ways in which particular episodes or decisions either limit or enhance future possible courses. This model seems to help explain the period of about 1965 through 1980. Pressure from the civil rights movement led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed public discrimination on the basis of race. This, combined with the cold war—with its heightened anxiety about U.S. technological and educational competitiveness, and with the discrepancy between U.S. racist legislation and the ideology of equality, which came under scrutiny by the whole world—led to the 1965 Immigration Act. The 1965 act ended racist Asian exclusions, introduced family reunification, and strengthened provisions for admitting highly educated and skilled immigrant workers. With the 1965 act, blatant racial discrimination was no longer part of U.S. immigration policy and the country's doors were opened wider, allowing rising numbers of Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants to enter as legal permanent residents. Continuing this trend toward greater openness, President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act in 1980, formally removing American foreign policy as the basis for American refugee policy and admissions.
Some observers see a linear process of increasing immigration liberalism and expansionism. They point to the emergence of a broad world culture of human rights, the erosion of racist national exclusions, and immigration policies moving away from, as sociologist Christian Joppke puts it, "the service of reproducing historically particular forms of nationhood." In this view, once immigrants gain rights, they do not lose them. Instead, they use these to push for more, so that new rights and greater openness accumulate over time. There is much evidence to support this view, especially for the period of 1965 to 1980.
Since the 1980s, we have witnessed growing public ambivalence and even hostility toward new and future immigrants. These views have been widely broadcast in media and have found expression in numerous legislative initiatives. Immigrants and their supporters have made some major gains, but these are often accompanied by retractions and losses. Some immigrant rights and privileges that were once ratified by law have been eroded.
At the federal level, where immigration policies are created in the United States, the rights of legal permanent residents—colloquially known as "green carders" or "legal immigrants"—were actually diminished with the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA—the acronym is aptly pronounced as eerie-Ira). In California, after Governor Gray Davis reinstituted the right for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, the next governor, former bodybuilding champion and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself an Austrian immigrant, rescinded this right as soon as he took office. These were but two of the many rollbacks at the state and federal levels. At the level of public opinion, blatant xenophobia appears to reign in major media outlets. Rather than embedded liberalism, something more akin to embedded restrictionism has prevailed over immigration matters in the United States since about 1980. The 1980s, the 1990s, and the postmillennial period immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have featured U.S. restrictionist immigration policies fueled by economic anxieties, racism, nationalism, and national security concerns. These efforts have become deeply embedded in legislative processes, in the media, and in the minds of average citizens.
Several strategic sites of assault on immigrants emerged in this era: the workplace, the border, and, after 9/11, the civil rights of Muslim immigrants. Moreover, these three sites of assault on immigrants are connected. The roots of contemporary anti-immigrant assaults can be traced to the Simpson-Rodino and Simpson-Mazzoli bills of the early 1980s, which first proposed fees and criminal sanctions for employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrant workers. Employer sanctions were ultimately institutionalized through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which also included provisions that ultimately legalized about 3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although employer sanctions remain on the books, these have never been fully enforced—and neither undocumented migration nor employer willingness to hire unauthorized worker has ceased. Consequently, many undocumented workers remain employed in the United States in subservient positions, with extreme exploitation, low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Entire industries such as cleaning services, hotels and restaurants, construction, farms and poultry plants, and manufacturing sectors now feature an embedded, institutionalized reliance on undocumented immigrant labor.
Some pundits referred to employer sanctions as moving restrictionist efforts from the border to the workplace, but in the 1990s the pendulum swung back with renewed federal efforts to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1994 President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, in response to public pressure to do something about illegal immigration from Mexico, inaugurated a series of enforcement measures ostensibly designed to stem illegal border crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Safeguard, and other campaigns with military-sounding names ensued. As detailed in chapter 6, these measures did not deter illegal migration but did push crossings toward sites in the deserts and mountains, increasing tragic migrant deaths.
In 1994 Californians voted overwhelming in favor of Proposition 187, an effort to deny public education and public health services to undocumented immigrants and their children. This measure responded to public perceptions of undocumented immigrants as welfare drains, and it seemed to codify the ambivalent reception of undocumented immigrants, especially Mexicans, welcomed as subordinate workers but rejected as fully human families and communities with possibilities for social reproducing themselves through schooling and health care. Women and children were to be denied public services, with gender, race, and age conspiring as mechanisms of immigrant exclusion.
Proposition 187 was found to be unconstitutional, but its success in California prompted federal immigration legislation in 1996 with IIRIRA. In multiple arenas, IIRIRA demoted the status not only of illegal immigrants but also of legal permanent residents. The year 1996 also brought the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. This ended the system of social welfare that had been in place since the 1930s and threatened the ability of noncitizens to obtain welfare benefits. Citizenship, race, and gender constituted new, legitimate axes of exclusion. That same year also saw passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which made it a crime to offer material support to foreign organizations identified as terrorists by the U.S. secretary of state. Importantly, the act also permitted charges to be brought against suspected immigrants based on secret evidence. As inconceivable as it sounds, the law allows the government to charge immigrants with crimes and withhold evidentiary information that might allow them to defend themselves.
The coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, inspired a new wave of Islamophobia and a suspension of immigrant civil rights. No one can deny the tragedy of the attacks, but the U.S. government's response led not only to foreign invasion and war overseas but also to domestic attacks of another sort, codified in the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act). New forms of surveillance and selective targeting of immigrants were enacted through both administrative decisions and informal practices. The USA PATRIOT Act included changes to criminal, banking, and immigration law, and it introduced more expansive definitions of what constitutes "terrorist activity" for immigrants and U.S. citizens. With this legislation, rapidly passed in the weeks following 9/11, noncitizen immigrants' rights to political association, free speech, due process, and privacy were placed in jeopardy. Thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrant men were subsequently detained and held without charges.
This is but a brief summary of recent federal immigration restrictionist legislation. The main laws have been accompanied by hundreds of federal administrative decisions and actions, and now there is something new: statewide and local efforts to punish and restrict the rights of immigrants. Regulating immigration is supposed to be a federal matter, but now states and municipalities are trying to control what immigrants can and cannot do. Over one hundred municipalities drafted legislation against undocumented immigrants in 2006, which sociologist Philip Kretsedemas has referred to as "new immigrant profiling." We have seen this in many states and municipalities with controversies over drivers' licenses, the acceptability of consular identification cards for undocumented immigrants, and law enforcement practices. Some municipalities have tried to enact city laws against renting apartments and houses to undocumented immigrants. At the turn of the millennium, the Statue of Liberty still holds the torch, but newcomers have stepped onto a slippery welcoming mat.
This anti-immigrant legislative era has been accompanied by popular, quotidian expressions of fear, suspicion, and hatred of new immigrants. These include actions and verbalizations of intolerance, contempt, violence, segregation, and exploitation. These are featured in off-the-cuff remarks and deliberate harangues at workplaces, in political speeches and social gatherings, on talk radio, on blogs and email Listservs, and in various mass media outlets. These are too numerous to cite, but even ostensibly liberal-leaning people are prone to comments implying Western, white supremacist superiority and the potentially disastrous effects of including immigrant others in U.S. society. Sometimes this takes the guise of what can be seen as legitimate concern over national security and fear of terrorism, but sometimes it is about fear of immigrant drivers, germs, or immigrant children. There is often an alarmist quality to these comments. After the immigrant rights marches of 2006, a prominent viewpoint expressed in talk radio and newspaper letters to the editors was outrage that people who had entered the United States illegally were now demanding legal rights. Criminals are walking the streets and demanding rights! "Illegals" emerged as a new noun, featured in statements such as "The illegals have won, and national sovereignty is over." "Illegals" seemed to imply the existence of a new, fixed racial category, not a momentary legal categorization.
In this historical moment, even legal immigrants have come to be seen as outsiders, as persons of ill repute. It used to be, as law professor Hiroshi Motomura observes, that Americans saw new immigrants as "Americans in waiting," as people in transition. Now, new immigrants may be permanent legal residents (law-abiding, fully employed, and authorized-to-work green carders) who "may later become citizens, but we no longer treat them as if they will." Something in the current historical moment has unfolded that keeps new immigrants as permanent outsiders, rather than as people in transition, en route to becoming American.
Why has the current era become so inhospitable and mean-spirited? Certainly there are long historical legacies of immigrant and racial exclusions in the United States. As historian Mae N. Ngai has shown, practices of exclusion, restrictionist legislation, and the construction of "illegal aliens" have been constitutive elements of U.S. national identity and nationalism. In the current period, we have been living through an upsurge in nationalist nativism and restrictionism. In part, this is a response to the rapid increase in global, and particularly U.S.-bound, migration, but it is important to recognize the context in which this has occurred. Below, I explain how the anti-immigrant backlash has been shaped by rapid economic, racial-cultural, and nationalist reconfigurations.
Economic transformations, particularly the massive movement of capital, has fueled xenophobia. During the last thirty years, the United States has become part of a system of economic globalization and has completed the transition from an industrial to postindustrial society. The decline of U.S.-based manufacturing, the plant closures of the 1980s, continuing deindustrialization, the proliferation of neoliberalist ideology, and free trade agreements such as NAFTA have led to employment loss and downgrading of many blue-collar jobs, compounding economic uncertainties in the lives of many Americans. As Saskia Sassen succinctly puts it, the denationalization of economies has fueled the renationalization of politics. In this context, immigrant workers appear as competitors and culprits of economic decline.
Another explanation underlines race and culture. In recent years, writers such as Samuel P. Huntington and Arthur Schlesinger have galvanized public attention, sometimes igniting controversy but also aligning sympathy with their arguments that racially different groups of immigrant newcomers are destroying the cultural fabric of white Anglo-Protestant America. There are variations of this argument. In some cases, the threat is construed as Mexican reconquista, in others, as non-Judeo-Christian Muslims provoking a "clash of civilizations," but the upshot is the same: The fear of racial, cultural, and linguistic difference legitimates anti-immigrant legislation. While it is no longer legitimate to frame a public campaign by appealing to a "superior Aryan race" or "separate but equal" standards of segregation, commentators such as Etienne Balibar, discussing France, and Leo Chavez, discussing the United States, argue that anti-immigrant tirades now constitute today's acceptable form of racism.
Frustration and anxiety about the impotence of existent nation-state immigration policies have also fueled contemporary xenophobia. Every major postindustrial nation has erected policy barriers that have proven ineffective in restricting immigration. This is true of the European Union, Australia, and Canada as well as the United States. Economic globalization and global realities such as civil wars, natural disasters, and refugee movements are powerful forces that have undermined unilateral immigration policies. In turn, this has lead to symbolic efforts to bolster physical barriers at the border, as the political scientist Peter Andreas convincingly argues. Calls for fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border with more Border Patrol and Coast Guard troops accompanied the emergence of vigilante and citizen action groups bearing vaguely archaic names—Ranch Rescue, the Minutemen, and the seemingly Victorian-inspired, Arizona-based Mothers against Illegal Aliens. Can a call to bring back the Texas Rangers be far behind? Frustration and anger over the inability of existent immigration laws and enforcement efforts to have prevented the entrance of 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants into the United States intensified these expressions of symbolic nationalism and nativism.
These economic, racial-cultural, and nationalist reconfigurations have defined an era with high rates of immigration, where many immigrants are not fully included or integrated into U.S. society. They may be physically present but not fully recognized. The backdoor of the United States has been opened wide enough for millions of immigrant workers to enter and find employment in the United States, but not wide enough to accommodate them with full rights at the workplace. Instead, economic exploitation, denial of equal opportunities, and the absence of full civil and social rights characterize the experience of many newcomers.
In this regard, Yen Le Espiritu's concept of differential inclusion captures the contemporary reality. Espiritu defines differential inclusion as "the process whereby a group of people is deemed integral to the nation's economy, culture, identity, and power—but integral only because of their designated subordinate standing." I would add that immigrant groups are differentially incorporated into the United States. Some newcomer groups may enjoy more economic rights and privileges but find themselves more restricted in the realm of civil liberties or racial discrimination, while other groups find limited economic opportunities but enjoy great freedoms in other arenas. Similarly, Susan Coutin's concept of legal nonexistence, whereby immigrants are physically present and socially engaged in institutions but lacking in legal recognition, and Cecilia Menjivar's notion of liminal legality, which refers to the suspended or temporary nature of some immigrants' legal status, are also relevant to this reality. People of faith have gathered into various organizations and groups to remedy the injustices of these differential, partial and liminal inclusions.
Denominational Support for Immigrants
All of the major mainline religions have issued statements in favor of antirestrictionist reform. Among the most prominent are the pastoral letters by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2000 they issued a statement, declaring, "We advocate for just policies that respect human rights of immigrants" and stating their opposition to policies that attempt to stem migration but do not "adequately address its root causes." In 2003, together with the Mexican Bishops, they issued a historic joint statement, "Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope." Citing the New and Old Testament and Catholic social teachings, the statement focused primarily on the world's largest and longest-running labor migration, U.S.-bound Mexican migration. While recognizing the right of a sovereign state to control its borders, the declaration is unabashedly in favor of migrant rights. If people are unable to find employment in their home societies, the bishops declared, then "they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive. Sovereign nations should provide ways to accommodate this right." Building on this earlier momentum, in June 2004 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched the Justice for Immigrants campaign. Even conservative Pope Benedict XVI endorsed migrant rights.
Other denominations have also issued strong statements in support of immigrant rights. They became more vociferous after Congress proposed legislation to criminalize ministers and others providing humanitarian assistance to undocumented immigrants. The list of participating religious denominations is broad and impressive: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued statements in favor of upholding the biblical mandate to "welcome the stranger" and legalizing undocumented immigrants currently residing and working in the United States. The Missouri Synod, a sterner variety of Lutheranism, acknowledged "the responsibility of government to regulate immigration" (citing the book of Romans for that) but also conceded that many migrants "come illegally because they have deemed that the legal route is nearly impossible." It too spoke out against proposed legislation that would make it illegal to offer charitable assistance to undocumented immigrants. The presiding Episcopal bishop issued a statement in favor of "just and humane immigration system" and called for the rejection of "punitive and impractical" immigration legislation." The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA went further, issuing a study guide, "Resolution Calling for a Comprehensive Legalization Program for Immigrants Living and Working in the United States." And the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Union for Reform Judaism have all issued statements, many going back to the 1980s and 1990s, in favor of just immigration policies.
Moreover, as sociologist Stephanie Nawyn has observed, the bulk of refugee resettlement in the United States is conducted by faith-based NGOs. Many of the social services that immigrants receive are funneled through congregations and faith-based organizations, such as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Refugee and Immigrant Services. Across the country, multiple small-community organizing projects in immigrant communities often center around church sites and religious-based staff. Grassroots neighborhood organizing projects, such as those run by the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), are often based in congregations and rely on religious language. Many of the 2006 marches for immigrant rights included religious elements, such as candlelight vigils, emblems of religiosity, and speeches by clergy. In fact, many of the marches began or ended at church sites.
Beyond the major religions' resolutions and declarations in favor of immigrant rights, religious-based groups are working on the ground and with intentionality for immigrant rights. Legalization for undocumented immigrants remains central, but there are several arenas of immigrant rights struggles. In this book, I examine the efforts of people of faith who are fighting for immigrant civil rights, worker rights, and border-crossing rights.
I focus on individuals who have dedicated themselves to mobilizing as religious people to change laws, practices, and institutions so the social landscape will become more hospitable to the rights and full inclusion of immigrants. These are not social service providers but activists seeking social change. Some of these religiously identified people are immigrants themselves, but many are not. They are midlevel activists, neither the top brass who formulate immigration positions or policy for, say, the national Catholic Church or the Presbyterian Synod nor the average congregates in the pews. I describe them more fully later in this chapter. In the next section, I discuss the different tools of religion that these activists use.
What Can Religion Do?
Religion has always played a big role in American civil society and in mobilizing collective groups to pursue social change. A myriad of social and political movements in the United States draw from the well of religion, mostly from Christian religions. Christianity, like other religions, has proven to be quite flexible, as abolitionists and Klansmen, antiwar protestors and "family values" conservatives have all laid moral claim to their causes by basing their movements in Christian religious teachings. In this regard, religion, and particularly Christianity in the American context, is like a tool kit that can be utilized to build different projects. If we pause to consider what religion has to offer political and social movements, particularly those concerned with immigrant rights, we can identify at least four critical factors.
Religion can provide social movement actors with moral justification and motivation for action. As Rhys H. Williams notes, religion can serve as a "social movement language," giving "a fairly complete 'explanation' as to why the world is the way it is and how it became that way." Religion imparts not only explanation but also responsibility for setting things right. Notions of altruism and "sacrificial disposition" are deeply embedded in religious teachings and may motivate people to give time and energy to causes that entail risk and that may not benefit them as individuals, as Sharon Nepstad has noted. Faith can motivate social action, and motives that are rooted in the sacred have been referred to as "transcendent motivation" by Christian Smith.
Scripture allows religiously based activists to build their claims for moral authority. Ancient, deeply revered texts from the Abrahamic religions offer sacred teachings that can be applied to various contemporary issues. Notions such as Christian kinship, Jewish righteousness, and Muslim charity operate in the landscape of the immigrant rights movement. Moreover, metaphorical stories from the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah may be deployed in flexible ways. From the Bible alone, there are many stories that teach hospitality and to welcome the stranger and that encourage identification and compassion with workers and the poor. Sociologist Aldon Morris has shown how Martin Luther King skillfully recast biblical themes into calls for social action in the civil rights movement. Scriptures can be used flexibly to support new, alternative ways of seeing the world, especially ways that are not widely accepted. These "alternative frameworks of meaning" can prove critical in bringing about social change.
Religion provides immigrants and their political supporters with resources, both social networks and concrete items (such as money and buildings). Material resources are necessary for successful mobilization. Churches and temples can provide monetary funds, offices with phones and faxes, and large multipurpose rooms with folding chairs for conducting public forums or smaller committee meetings. Clergy who become involved in organizations and advocacy groups bring their own set of resources and professional talents to these groups. They may have time to participate in meetings and coalitions and may already possess well-developed organizational and leadership skills, bringing charismatic speaking abilities to the cause. Faith-based foundations (for example, Catholic Charities, Campaign for Human Development, and Lutheran Refugee Rights and Services) and donations from the faithful can provide money for grassroots organizing and other campaigns. Followers may donate money to the cause. We know from examining the history of the civil rights movement, the Central American solidarity movement, and the United Farm Workers movement that resources provided by churches and other faith-based organizations and the clergy were critical in those movements' successes.
Existent social networks are also important in building social change–oriented organizations. Religious people are usually already involved in congregations or have other religious connections. For both the solidarity movement of the 1980s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, congregations and religious networks provided ready-made institutions from which movement organizations could recruit new members. Operating in both existent social networks and at the level of faith or belief, religion helps sustain people's long-term commitments to social action.
In a country such as the United States, religion can offer legitimacy to causes that might otherwise be perceived as illegitimate. Religion, particularly Christian religion, carries tremendous moral weight and political legitimacy in the United States. To date, all elected presidents of the United States have been avowed believers in God and members of Christian congregations; only one was non-Protestant. An agnostic or atheist presidential candidate would not go far in the United States, and religious leaders are widely recognized as moral leaders in American society. In this regard, religious leaders who speak out in favor of ideas that are not widely accepted by the American public are not as easily dismissed by opponents as are nonreligious leaders. For example, a clergy member who expresses belief in the dignity of all human beings regardless of state citizenship is not as easily ridiculed as a nonclerical person.
Religion is uniquely suited to offer legitimacy to unpopular causes because it can operate as a relatively autonomous arena, acting as it does from a higher ground. Certainly religion is part of society, but religion is recognized as separate from secular institutions. This means that challenges to both state and market forces may be launched and nurtured through religious institutions. In this regard, religious authority, faith-based morality, and the "higher law" of God and the scriptures may be used to persuade others of the need to remedy injustices in secular institutions.
Finally, religions offer ritual and shared cultural practices. Most movements for social change rely on a shared culture of beliefs and practice. Religion has much to offer in this regard. Sacred songs, religious symbols, ancient scripture, public prayer, special holy days, clerical clothing, and shared beliefs provide a rich glue holding people together. Religious-based rituals and collectively enacted rites invoke the legacy of ancestors and ancient traditions, often evoking the feelings of excitement and togetherness that Emile Durkheim called "collective effervescence."
Today, rituals are deployed in ways that bring deep relevance to contemporary social issues. As social movement theorist James M. Jasper observes, "Collective rites remind participants of their basic moral commitments, stir up strong emotions, and reinforce a sense of solidarity with the group, a 'we-ness.' Rituals are symbolic embodiments, at salient times and places, of the beliefs of a group." Rituals, Jasper reminds us, bring people together in a space that is apart from mundane, everyday activities, and rituals are important in stirring up appropriate collective emotional responses for social change activists. Sociologist Sharon Nepstad, who has examined the religious elements in the Central American solidarity movement, draws our attention to "the cultural resources of Christianity" and the ways in which these are used to rejuvenate activism. These cultural resources include tools such as shared religious identities, rituals, and religious traditions.
The visual aspect of religion constitutes a big part of religious ritual and culture. Religious rituals, metaphors, symbols, visions, icons, and pageantry all include strong visual elements. Rituals can be important internally for a group, allowing members to share contemplative moments and to signal shared identities to one another, and they can be important in the telegenic arena, allowing groups to communicate a religious perspective on a social issue to the public through the mass media. It is in this last regard that the visual aspect of religion becomes very important in social movements, but rituals are also important for renewing activist commitments and identities. As we will see later, religious-based groups approach these tasks in different ways.
People of faith, in small groups and coalitions, are working in today's xenophobic climate to bring about just opportunities for immigrants. This book examines what Muslim American immigrants and their supporters are doing in the realm of civil rights, what Judeo-Christian clergy are doing to advance Latino immigrant worker rights, and what largely ecumenical group of Christians are doing at the U.S.-Mexico border for migrant border-crossing rights. In the following chapters, I seek to answer the following questions:
• What are these faith-based persons and their organizations doing to promote immigrant rights?
• How do these activists and their organizations use religious language, moral authority, resources, sacred space, and symbols to pursue social change?
• How do their political and religious identities change in the process?
I answer these questions by relying on research conducted with midlevel activists working in various social change–oriented organizations. The data is rich and varied, and it is based on four sources: (1) audio-taped, fully transcribed interviews with individuals identified as faith-based advocates around immigrant rights; (2) observations from public forums, events, and planning meetings sponsored by key organizations; (3) analyses of documents, websites, flyers, and meeting agendas produced by these organizations; and (4) press coverage of these organizations' events. Altogether, sixty in-depth interviews—and an additional forty-seven very short interviews at the Posada sin Fronteras—were conducted by myself and several student research assistants. We also attended and gathered field notes at more than sixty public events.Unsourced quotations that appear in the text are drawn from transcribed interviews and field notes.
Plan of the Book
This book is divided into three substantive sections, with two chapters devoted to each case. The first chapter of each section explains what the particular group of religious-based activists do, the broader context of their emergence as social activists, and how they use religion to further their cause. Relevant historical precedents are discussed to remedy our collective social amnesia and to draw analytic comparisons. The second chapter in each section looks at the meanings and identities that faith-based activists draw from their projects.
Part 1 is called "Redeeming Citizens," and chapter 2 introduces Muslim American immigrants struggling for civil rights in the context of the post-9/11 backlash. I examine what various organizations and leaders did during this crucial period, in outreach with their own communities and the broader American public. I also interviewed some of their supporters. As a historical precedent, I also underline in this chapter the important role of black southern Christian churches and clergy in building the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the relative absence of a religious-based resistance among Japanese Americans facing internment camps and loss of civil liberties during World War II. Chapter 3 analyzes the discursive struggle of Muslim American immigrant groups. They are seeking to carve out an identity that is at once religious and non-Christian but yet fully American.
Part 2 discusses immigrant worker justice, and chapter 4 focuses on the efforts of one organization, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, to advance the rights of Latino immigrants in the service worker unions. This chapter also discusses the legacy of previous religious efforts devoted to economic advocacy in the United States, namely the social gospel movement, activists in the Catholic Worker movement, and the United Farm Worker Union movement, led by Cèsar Chàvez's particularly spiritual form of organizing. As history reveals, there are continuities and disjunctures in the way religion has been used as a tool for worker justice. While chapter 4 focuses on what Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice members do, chapter 5 examines the tensions that sometimes arise between clergy and union leaders and focuses on how activism informs the clergy's sense of themselves as religious leaders and as people.
Part 3 of the book, Faith sin Fronteras, focuses on religious activists at the U.S.-Mexico border. Chapter 6 introduces what faith-based activists are doing to address violence and migrant death, focusing on how Catholic Latino religious rituals in particular have become a key tool of social activism in responding to border policies. This chapter also details how, in the 1980s, religious people and faith played an important role in the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees. Chapter 7 explores the expansiveness of Christian antiborderism by considering the diverse meaning that participants in the Posada sin Fronteras draw from the event. Chapter 8 offers some concluding comments.
My book shows how religion is a powerful force that enables individuals and organizations to engage in civic and political action for new immigrants. This political engagement is often experienced as a "spiritual calling," even as an authentic form of worship, and this engagement revitalizes religious identities and communities. In the process, the claims for both immigrant enfranchisement and religious identities are strengthened, but this is neither a homogenous nor a seamless process. In fact, social activists must use religion strategically and in tandem with secular values and legal systems and institutions. Visiting the three sites of struggle—Muslim American immigrants working for civil rights, Judeo-Christian clergy organizing to support Latino immigrant worker rights, and ecumenical Christian efforts toward establishing border rights—reveals the multiple ways that religion is used to challenge the dominant market and state logic of immigration and immigrant rights.