Religion has a major role to play in the outcome of immigration debate but is largely overlooked amid local tensions and failed efforts in Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform, three experts said in a telephone news conference Wednesday.

Immigrants and their children today make up one quarter of the American population, but the debate the nation is having about immigration is based on “very out of date assumptions,” said Peggy Levitt, a Wellesley College sociologist and author of the new book God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape.

The old conventional wisdom that severing ties with their homeland is a first step toward assimilation of new immigrants is no longer true, Levitt said. Because of advanced communication technology, immigrants today “keep feet in both worlds.”

One way they do that is through religion. Instead of a threat, Levitt views immigrant religious communities as “bridge builders” between cultures.

Levitt said immigration is a trans-national phenomenon that provides both opportunities and challenges that need trans-national solutions. “Religion is really an underutilized resource in addressing some of these concerns,” she said.

In order to value religious pluralism, she said, Americans “need to start thinking about religion as outside the Christian box.”

“Not everyone goes to the same church and prays the same and believes in the same canon,” she said. “We do see religion as helping people to become part of this country and staying connected to their homeland.”

Manuel Vasquez, professor of religion at the University of Florida, is involved in a study of the “politics of encounter,” what happens when a new immigrant group arrives in an area and makes its voice heard.

His study focuses on Latino immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil in Atlanta, a southern city where ethnic relations have historically been shaped by the divide between blacks and whites.

Vasquez said churches and religious organizations are central to the process of relations between ethnic groups.

When immigrants arrive in a new destination, “one of the first things they do is form congregations,” he said.

Those migrant congregations provide networks and a place where they can speak their language and meet about common concerns. “Churches become part of the social fabric these immigrants construct,” Vasquez said.

Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice said her work with people of faith around labor issues has convinced her that the issues of worker justice and immigration cannot be separated “at this moment in history in this country.”

Bobo said worker conditions for immigrants are often deplorable. The most common complaint she deals with is workers who don’t get paid.

All faith traditions, she said, have principles “that suggest we should welcome the immigrant and we serve a God who does not just care about people within one set of borders.” Congregations also see the evidence of families being torn apart by immigration law.

“Out of this we’ve seen just this outpouring of concern from the religious community calling for a more equitable and fair and comprehensive immigration program,” she said.

Bobo also is a leader in Chicago’s New Sanctuary Movement, communities that create public sanctuaries for families that do not have proper documentation.

She acknowledged the movement is controversial for some churches, but it also raises broader questions about how people of faith should respond to day laborers standing on the corner and construction workers building in the hot sun.

“This is an important crisis for our country, and the religious community is stepping up in many ways,” Bobo said.

Vasquez said his study in Atlanta found “very clear tension” in the African-American community about immigration. While impressed by a vitality and yearning for social justice that “reminds them of the civil-rights movement,” Vasquez said, black religious leaders also have some “apprehension” that Latinos are too quick to buy into the “American Dream,” thus taking advantage of gains won by the civil-rights movement without a strong commitment to social justice.

Vasquez added that last year’s massive demonstration for immigration reform was a “wake-up call” for some in the African-American community who had previously criticized Latinos for being too passive.

“It was a set of networks that was mobilized almost instantly, using the media, radio, and all of a sudden they come out and they are here among us,” he said, “so we really need to pay attention to what they are saying.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

Share This