Perspectives on immigration – the influence of religion

As a native of Florida, there is a certain pride and frustration present in a bumper-sticker message we natives desire to send to the many seasonal residents of the sunshine state. The message is simple and straight-forward, “Welcome to Florida, now go home.” Another is equally popular, “We don’t care how you do it up north.” Still another is functional in its tone, “When I get old, I’m moving north and driving slow.”

While these messages are sent in good fun, they convey several misconceptions. First, is the misconception that seasonal residents are bad for the economy. In reality, much was gained when the snowbirds came to town. Church attendance increased, businesses enjoyed additional activity, and the increase in population allowed for greater real-estate revenue. While these half-year residents may not have paid as much in taxes as natives, they certainly contributed to the welfare of the community. Yes, they drove slowly, but they came as most of us came; from somewhere else. The second misconception is perhaps the most important. While my great-great grandmother was Seminole, my self-identity as a “native Floridian” is arguable. Members of the Seminole tribe could point to the invasion of their land by my Scottish-born ancestors with much more disdain and reason for lament than my shallow rejection of snowbirds. The Seminoles are the true Native Floridians, I am the immigrant. In fact, we are a nation of immigrants, making the issue of immigration one that requires a wise, careful, and thoroughly biblical response.

While the messages sent from my bumper sticker to snowbirds generated friendly jibing, Immigrants to the United States have often encountered serious intolerance along with negative, if not inaccurate stereotypes.  While it is accurate to point to historical and political realities for their impact on one’s attitude toward immigrants, a fair question can be raised; where do those attitudes come from? Are there underlying factors connected to the formation of society’s perspective toward immigrants on an individual level?

To this question, several proposals have been offered. These include how one’s attitudes are influenced by the condition of the economy, how perspectives are shaped by concerns over safety and security, and how one’s affinity for their own culture impacts their capacity to accept the cultural particularities of another. There are many studies that provide helpful information regarding general attitudes toward immigration policy. [1] People of faith, Christian faith in particular also form their perspectives on immigration through the lenses of economy, security, and culture. Religion however, has been mentioned as an almost incidental element in the formulation of one’s attitude toward immigration. Until recently, the role of religious thought and practice as a key element in the formulation of such attitudes has been overlooked as an area of serious study. While researching this essay, it was interesting to note the appeal that more attention be given to religion’s role in this area by researchers themselves. Sociologist Steven Warner called the absence of material a “huge scholarly blind spot”.  [2]

Of course, just as there are widely diverse perspectives in each of the three conditions mentioned above, adding religious affiliation to the interpretive mix in no way yields a unified religious response. This is illustrated through my affiliation with a ministry to border residents and its director. The research reveals a primary concern often expressed by potential visiting church groups is whether or not the immigrants they would serve are “legal or illegal”. In more than a few cases, church groups elect to avoid ministry efforts toward undocumented immigrants. It was believed by these groups that to do so would serve to enable illegal activity. [3] While it has been no surprise for Christian groups to state their convictions on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, my source with the border ministry has been surprised to see more and more groups view immigration as a moral issue, and therefore decline opportunities to minister to what they call “illegal aliens”. The news however, is not all negative. My source reports that other groups increasingly seek out his ministry in order to seize opportunities to minster specifically to immigrants they know to be undocumented.  [4]

Why would some groups decline to engage in ministry to undocumented immigrants based on Christian conviction, while others cite Christian conviction as a reason to seek such an opportunity?

The information above illustrates a significant divide among Christians in their attitudes toward immigration. While the reason for the differing responses above are cited as Christian conviction, this series of posts will observe the way in which one’s Christian beliefs are constantly at odds with one’s sense of economic, security, and cultural self-preservation, and how this struggle impacts one’s understanding of the information available on immigration issues. This leads members of the Body of Christ to very different mechanisms by which they process and interpret the economic, security, and cultural factors of the current immigration conversation. The goal of this series is to heighten one’s awareness to the diversity of perspective within the Body, and to provide a synopsis of the differing views of Christians in a way that promotes greater understanding and education in hopes that even with differing perspectives on immigration policy issues, Christians will see immigrants as people in need of compassionate ministry, love, and respect. They are what all of us were at one time; strangers in need of a place and people.

The posts to follow will provide a brief glimpse of ways by which Christians respond to these three important points of discussion.


 

[1]Tanya Maria. Golash-Boza, Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2012), 47.

[2] Warner Steven, “Religion, Boundaries, and Bridges.,” Sociology of Religion 58, no. 3 (1997): 217.

[3] Border ministry source, interview by author, August 26, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

Kevin Glenn

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lance.johnson.5074 Lance Johnson

    An interesting new book/ebook that helps explain the role, struggles,
    and contributions of immigrants and minorities is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to understand crazy American culture, people, government, business, language and more.” It paints a revealing picture of America for those who will benefit from a better understanding. Endorsed by ambassadors, educators, and editors,
    it also informs those who want to learn more about the last remaining
    superpower and how it compares to other nations on many issues.

    As the book points out, immigrants and minorities are a major force in America, as Romney and the GOP recently discovered. Immigrants and the children they bear account for 60 percent of our nation’s population growth and own 11 percent of US businesses and are 60 percent more likely to start a new business than native-born Americans. They represent 17 percent of all new business owners (in some states more than 30 percent). Foreign-born business owners generate nearly one-quarter of all business income in California and nearly one-fifth in the states of New York, Florida, and New Jersey.

    Legal immigrants number 850,000 each year; undocumented (illegal) immigrants are estimated to be half that number. They come to improve their lives and create a foundation of success for their children to build upon, as did the author’s grandparents when they landed at Ellis Island in 1899 after losing 2 children to disease on a cramped cattle car-like sailing from Europe to the Land of Opportunity. Many bring skills and a willingness to work hard to make their dreams a reality, something our founders did four hundred years ago. In describing America, chapter after chapter identifies “foreigners” who became successful in the US and contributed to our society. However, most struggle in their efforts and need guidance in Anytown, USA. Perhaps intelligent immigration reform, concerned citizens and books like this can extend a helping hand. Here’s a closing quote from the book’s Intro: “With all of our cultural differences though, you’ll be surprised to learn how much our countries—and we as human beings—have in common on this little
    third rock from the sun. After all, the song played at our Disneyland parks
    around the world is ‘It’s A Small World After All.’ Peace.” http://www.AmericaAtoZ.com

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  • http://kevinglenn.podbean.com/ Kevin Glenn

    Great information, Lance. Thanks! I’ll check the book as well.

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