While Anti-Immigrant Pastors Grab Headlines, Faith Leaders Remain Key in Upholding Migrant Rights Movement

Anti-immigrant pastors may be drawing attention – but faith leaders are central to the movement to protect migrant rights

A group of far-right Christian nationalists, identifying themselves as “God’s Army,” has been organizing rallies along the southern U.S. border, protesting against migrants.

Operating under the slogan “Take Our Border Back,” participants in these rallies have been employing dehumanizing rhetoric, labeling the situation as an “invasion” and referencing the conspiracy theory of the “great replacement.”

This theory alleges that a coalition of Western elites and Jewish figures are orchestrating mass migration to replace white populations and their political influence with nonwhite immigrants.

Numerous figures within the Christian right have provided religious justifications for anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. They argue for the safeguarding of American culture and families from perceived threats posed by Islam and the influx of what they deem to be hardened criminals crossing the border.

Surveys consistently indicate that white Christians, particularly evangelicals, are among the most inclined groups in the U.S. to hold negative views toward immigrants.

While Anti-Immigrant Pastors Grab Headlines, Faith Leaders Remain Key in Upholding Migrant Rights Movement
While Anti-Immigrant Pastors Grab Headlines, Faith Leaders Remain Key in Upholding Migrant Rights Movement (Credits: Conversation)

However, our collaboration with faith-based pro-immigration advocacy groups reveals a different narrative. As articulated in our recent book, co-authored with sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, titled “God’s Resistance: Mobilizing Faith to Defend Immigrants,” faith leaders, including some evangelicals, have been central to the movement advocating for immigrant rights for over a century.

Historically, Latinx Christian leaders have been pioneers in the fight for immigrant rights in the United States. Figures such as Alonso Perales and Cleofas Calleros, Mexican-American Catholic leaders during the Jim Crow era, applied Catholic social teachings, emphasizing the inherent equality of all individuals to the struggle for civil rights.

They established prominent organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Catholic Welfare Conference, which played pivotal roles in significant civil rights cases such as Mendez v. Westminster and Hernandez v. Texas.

Mendez v. Westminster, a 1947 ruling deeming the segregation of Mexican-American children in schools unconstitutional, laid the groundwork for the landmark anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Similarly, Hernandez v. Texas decided in 1954, affirmed the equal protection rights of Mexican Americans and other racial groups under the 14th Amendment.

The significant role of Christian spirituality in the 1960s farmworkers movement, led by immigrants, is often overlooked. Leaders like Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta integrated Catholic social teachings and religious symbols into their successful efforts to unionize farmworkers.

For instance, Chavez orchestrated a 25-day pilgrimage in California, from Delano to Sacramento, under the banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Star of David, and a cross, culminating on Easter Sunday. This pilgrimage marked a pivotal moment in the movement’s success.

In the 1980s, faith leaders in the U.S. and Central America collaborated in the Sanctuary Movement to challenge the Reagan administration’s asylum policies toward refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America. This movement led to changes in asylum law, enabling those escaping the conflicts to seek asylum, and contributed to the cessation of U.S. military funding for wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Several of today’s most influential immigrant rights organizations, such as the Central American Resource Center in Southern California, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, were founded by Latinx people of faith during this period.

Our book not only chronicles this history but also examines the critical role of faith-based organizations in resisting the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement policies, which resulted in unprecedented levels of immigrant detention and family separations.

Through case studies conducted between 2018 and 2020 in Southern California, encompassing six faith-based immigrant advocacy organizations—two multi-faith, two evangelical, one Catholic, and one mainline Protestant—we identified unique strengths that faith groups bring to the movement for immigrant rights when collaborating with secular organizations.

Religious scriptures, symbols, and rituals can eloquently convey ideals of a just society where all individuals are equally valued and safe from harm. This religiously inspired vision provides motivation, clarity, hope, and resilience in the arduous task of advocating for social change. For marginalized communities, religious beliefs and spirituality serve as sources of resilience, or what scholars term “spiritual capital.”

In their advocacy efforts, faith-based groups often reference sacred scriptures, such as Leviticus’ command to treat foreigners with equality and Jesus’ teachings on welcoming immigrants. Additionally, religious rituals are combined with nonviolent actions, such as fasts, prayer vigils, and worship songs at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, invoking divine intervention for justice.

Moreover, faith-based organizations serve as bridges, connecting immigrants with non-immigrants, church attendees with activists, and activists with policymakers who have religious affiliations. These connections are vital for building a broad-based movement for change.

Volunteers from churches develop personal relationships with asylum seekers and detainees, providing them with essential support. Faith leaders facilitate interactions between undocumented individuals and policymakers, humanizing their experiences and influencing policy decisions.

In essence, our research underscores that despite the attention garnered by anti-immigrant Christian groups, faith leaders and faith-based organizations have been integral to past and present movements for immigrant rights. Their unique strengths significantly contribute to efforts aimed at social change.

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