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The immigration puzzle: looking beyond U.S. borders

By Gustav Spohn
Director of Communications and Publications

George RuppThe myriad problems associated with the volatile issue of immigration in the United States are not confined to what happens once foreign nationals arrive at U.S. borders.  In the context of an increasingly globalized world, immigration is intimately linked to the problems in home countries that often force people to flee in hopes of a better life in the U.S.

That was one of the major themes to emerge during a May 1-2 conference at Yale Divinity School entitled The Challenge of Immigration: Framing a New American Conversation, which featured a number of leading thinkers and practitioners on the topic—including, among others, George Rupp ’67 B.D., president of the International Rescue Committee; Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American Studies, University of California at Davis; Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; and Rima Salah of Jordan, deputy special representative of the secretary-general, United Nationals Mission in the Central African Republic of Chad.  Rupp, Hing and Salah each participated in the first of two panel presentations held in Marquand Chapel.

Participants in the conference also observed that American religious institutions have particularly significant roles to play in both the immigrant “sending” and “receiving” countries at a time when immigration is reconfiguring the contours of American society and its religious landscape as well.

Rupp encouraged stepped-up U.S. foreign assistance for capacity-building in poorer countries, observing that the U.S. spends a much smaller percentage of its gross national product on foreign assistance than most countries in the developed world.

Economic problems spawn immigration problems

“We have to make investments in the sending countries if the problems are going to be manageable,” said Rupp, a former president of both Columbia University and Rice University and former dean of Harvard Divinity School.  “More significant investments than we’ve been making, but over a longer period of time, could make people do what they really want to do—they’d like to stay home. They’d like to be able to support themselves in their own countries.

“But we have managed to develop a world organization in which the pressures of globalization make it increasingly difficult for people who want to stay home to stay home.  So first they go to cities, because they can’t support themselves on the land anymore, and then when they can’t find anything to do in the cities they one way or another find their way to other countries.  So we cannot solve the immigration problem unless we solve the economic problems in the sending countries.”

And it is important to focus on capacity-building in the poor countries, not to wait for a crisis to occur before providing aid, according to Rupp:  “Catastrophe prevention is far preferable to emergency intervention.   That means we have to make investments in security, in trade that benefits the poor as well as the rich, and in foreign assistance, to a much greater degree than we have been prepared to do.”

Hing, author of the book Deporting Our Souls—Values, Morality, and Immigration Policy (Cambridge, 2006), argued that the European Union has a better approach to immigration than the U.S.  Noting that the EU has invested “billions of dollars” in the poorer countries, Hing said, “The European Union has it right, and we have it wrong, in terms of how they handle globalization....We don’t have all the answers as Americans.  I think there are other places where we can learn from.” He observed that some countries such as Spain and Ireland, which used to be immigrant-sending countries, are now immigrant-receiving nations because of EU aid.

We cannot solve the immigration problem unless we solve the economic problems in the sending countries.

For her part, the UN’s Salah reminded the audience of important issues outside the purely financial, such as the need to press for approaches to foreign relations that address human rights issues.

“Dear friends, the complexity of today’s displacement goes well beyond voluntary migration,” said Salah, who for 20 years prior to her current post worked with the United Nations Childrens Fund.   “We see more and more people forced to move because of extreme deprivation, because of war and conflicts, and because of persecution.  The number of refugees and displaced people rose to more than 34 million.  Millions of children are growing up in families and communities torn apart by armed conflict and war.

“We need to intensify efforts to promote social justice and the respect of human rights in times of peace and in times of war.  Most importantly, we need to remind all our political leaders – all the political leaders of the world – of their responsibility to adopt a peaceful means of conflict resolution.”

Bill Ong HingIn response to a question from Thomas Ogletree, the Frederick Marquand Professor of Ethics at YDS, about the economic dimensions of peacemaking, Rupp said, “Connections between the economic and the political are really very direct.”  As an example, Rupp cited agricultural subsidies to U.S. farmers that he claimed are having a negative impact on West African farmers.

“They [subsidies] are putting out of business cotton farmers in West Africa who would be able to export competitively into the world market and would be able to at least have their own cotton,” suggested Rupp, noting that West Africa currently imports its cotton.

He added, “The religious community has to call that kind of policy what it is, namely, it is absolutely diabolical in terms of its total impact on the world, and in this case putting hard working, West African farmers out of business, who then go to the cities and when they can’t find work there wind up coming as immigrants—legal or illegal—to the United States.”

A role for the religious community

Indeed, Rupp and other speakers concurred that the wider faith community has a critical role to play as the world wrestles with the complexities of immigration.

 “I think there are huge resources in religious traditions, and not just Christian ones,” said Rupp.  “... enormous resources for welcoming the stranger, for hospitality, for being generous to aliens, and I think all of those traditions can and should be invoked.”

In reference to the recent visit of the pope to the United States, Salah remarked, “He talked about migrants, and he asked for their protection.  And why is this important?  Because we are in this school and in this chapel, and I cannot tell you enough about the role of religious leaders, the role of religion-faith societies, for example, that can play in empowering the migrants all over the world.  And he cited all religious leaders, from their pulpits, in the church, in the mosque, wherever they are, to help.”

I was confronted by a love that manifested itself where I least expected to find it.

Hing described what he termed a “continuous attack on family immigration” in the United States and efforts to eliminate the “sibling category” that makes it easier for siblings of immigrants in the U.S. to join their families here.  Again, the religious community has played a role, according to Hing, who told the audience, “I should be thanking you, because the coalitions... that have helped save, for example, the sibling category, which is the category which is most attacked... it’s been coalitions of churches that have actually helped to stave off that attack.”

“We do have a choice,” said Hing.  “We have a choice of an America that can be very open and understanding of the experiment that we call America, or we can choose to be closed and continue to look at America in a very narrow manner that puts us outside the circle of where globalization is going... The call should be for conversation and community-building in our neighborhoods with respect to who are the people among us and why are they here, and what are their values, and what do they think.”

Loving the strangers in our midst

Rima SalahRoberto Goizueta ’76 B.A., a professor of theology at Boston College and the son of Cuban immigrants, delivered a sermon during worship services in Marquand Chapel that included a compelling personal story about his encounter, as a Yale undergraduate, with a homeless man who taught him a lesson about strangers.

When the homeless man asked him for money, Goizueta gave him some loose change, but when the man then came toward him and reached for his head Goizueta went numb with fear, thinking he was about to be assaulted.

“The scruffy homeless man did indeed grab my head,” Goizueta recounted.  “He put both hands on my forehead, as if to extend a blessing, and said calmly, ‘Thank you. God bless you.’”

“My world with its preconceptions was literally turned upside down,” said Goizueta.  “In the man’s outstretched arms, I was confronted by a love that manifested itself where I least expected to find it.... We remain content with the gods limited by borders and barriers of our making.  However, the God revealed on the road to Emmaus and on the streets of New Haven is one who passionately desires to be welcomed into our lives as the stranger who reaches across those borders and barriers in wholly unanticipated ways.”

...immigration is helping to reshape the religious landscape throughout the world...

Another of the featured speakers, the Pew Forum’s Luis Lugo, highlighted some of the notable findings of the Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which documented in great detail the impact immigration is having on contemporary American religious life.

Two major processes are reshaping American religious landscape, Lugo reported:  “One is conversion from one faith to the other.  And the second one is immigration.”

“It is truly an amazing thing that we are witnessing throughout the world,” Lugo told his audience.  “Among other things, immigration is helping to reshape the religious landscape throughout the world, both internally within countries with urban folks going to the cities and converting, for instance, in large numbers to Pentecostalism, which is perhaps the most dynamic religious force in the world today, but also across international boundaries, across national boundaries.”

The Pew survey, based on interviews with a representative sample of more than 35,000 Americans, was conducted from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007.

Among the most significant trends is that immigration is helping to tilt the religious affiliation of Americans in the direction of Roman Catholicism, which Lugo pointed to as “the tradition that’s most having to deal with the question of immigration.”

The immigrant shift from Protestant to Catholic

Lugo cited statistics from the survey that showed, during the 2000-2007 period, 48 percent of all immigrants to the U.S. were Catholic, while just 22 percent considered themselves Protestant.  This, he said, is in contrast to 1910-1959, when 42 percent of immigrants were Catholic and 33 percent were Protestant. 

Also of note, he said, is the fact that there has been a dramatic downward shift among arriving Protestant immigrants identified with mainline churches, from 19 percent during 1910-1959 to just 5 percent in 2000-2007.  Meanwhile, the percentage of evangelical immigrants has remained steady at about 13 percent, while the percentage of arriving immigrants in the historically black churches has gone from one percent to three percent.

Immigration ConferenceOver the same time period, the concentration of Muslim and Hindu immigrants, while still relatively low, has shot upward dramatically, increasing, respectively, from less than.5 percent to two percent and from less than.5 percent to four percent.

Within the Catholic tradition, the percentage of Latinos is increasingly large as the cohort gets younger.  For example, 45 percent of Catholics ages 18-29 and 44 percent ages 30-39 are Latino, compared to just 17 percent ages 60-69 and 12 percent over the age of 70.

Latino growth is especially significant for the future shape of U.S. Catholicism because of what Lugo termed the “high presence of the charismatic element within Latino Catholicism.”

Said Lugo, “I’m not just talking about what I call bringing the fiesta spirit to mass here—the clapping, the much more animated singing, and all of that.  I’m talking about ‘high octane’ Pentecostalism.  I’m talking about speaking in tongues, divine healing, receiving works of prophesy, you know, all of that stuff.”

As the presence of Hispanic Catholics swells in the U.S., the average education level and income level of the average Catholic promises to decline.  According to Pew figures, 42 percent of Hispanic Catholics have less than a high school education, compared to 17 percent of all Catholics.  And 55 percent of Hispanic Catholics earn less than $30,000, compared to 31 percent of all Catholics.

He concluded that the Catholic Church is “the harbinger of religious demographic information that we’re seeing in the United States today.”

The conference, held in conjunction with the spring meeting of Yale Divinity School’s Board of Advisors, was funded in part by the Margaret Lindquist Sorensen Lectureship.  Typically, the Board engages a topic of contemporary importance, and the substance of the meeting then becomes a starting off point for an issue of YDS’s magazine of theological and ethical inquiry, Reflections.

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