Feeling at Home: The Importance of Religious Institutions for the Immigrant Resettling Experience in the US
By Thea Rose, Communications Intern
Migrating to the United States from any other country is an extremely complex choice to make. And for many, facing the burden of starting over in an unfamiliar place can inevitably bring up a conflict of identity, individuality and, sometimes, spiritual questioning.
Historically, religious institutions were among the most crucial resources for immigrant groups used to reproduce their ethno-religious identity and help them adjust to the new challenges of surviving in a demanding environment. According to the Pew Research Center, a high 82 percent of immigrants said religion is very important/somewhat important in one’s life. As migration continues to run its course due to natural disasters and exploitative work conditions, the international community recognizes the unique resources faith-based organizations have to offer.
Before we go on to further discuss the role of religion in immigrant integration, we must take into account that there is not much systematized information about whether someone’s beliefs hinder or facilitate socioeconomic and cultural assimilation for migrants. The U.S. government does not collect data on the religious affiliation of immigrants nor can we particularly estimate the religious affiliation of undocumented immigrants. To gather information on the religious breakdown of immigrants from each country, the Pew Research Center relies on participants’ self-identification as well as the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally represented survey conducted by many scholars who asked more than 8,500 recent legal immigrants about their religion.
There is not one monolithic interpretation of the role of religion on immigrant adaptation, just as there is no single path to assimilation in American society. Many older and newer immigrants are indifferent to organized religion but countless of them joined, or founded religious organizations as an expression of their historical identity as well as their commitment to building a local community in their new country.
Churches and other religious organizations play an important role in the creation of community and as a significant source of social and economic assistance for those in need. In the past, individuals could turn to their extended family for social and spiritual comfort, now the goal of a community, of shared values, is often sufficient enough to motivate people to trust and help one another, even in the absence of a long personal relationship.
Immigrants have devotional needs, which are most meaningful when packaged in a familiar linguistic and cultural context. In particular, immigrants are drawn to the companionship of ethnic churches and temples, where relationships among congregants are strengthened with traditional foods and customs. Immigrants also have many economic and social needs, and with American churches, temples, and synagogues, they have a long tradition of community service directed at those who are in much need of assistance.
In addition to religious support, the church can teach worshippers a wide variety of things such as applying for a social security card and how to obtain insurance in America. Religious organizations are places where information about employment, housing opportunities, and even health care are accessible, and they could even serve as unofficial work referral systems so members can find out about jobs or figure out how the hiring process works. The combination of religious comfort and material assistance heightens the attractions of membership and participation in religious institutions for new immigrants to the United States.
In looking at migrant health challenges, some states have prohibited noncitizens from receiving health care. According to the Center of Migration Services, discounting migrants from health care constitutes as a violation of their rights under international law. This is another one of many examples in which faith-based organizations come into play, having access to volunteer networks that can train doctors, organize health checkups, and ultimately provide culturally informed care.
On another note, we can see quite a few barriers placed on migrants who want to start up a business and build work experience. For banks, they are unwilling to offer credit to obtain loans due to the issue of profiling based on their immigration status, ethnicity, or race. Banks might also not grant short-term visas without a permanent residency. Religious organizations are actively advocating employment for migrants through grants and community donations while also giving small loans to startups. The resources being given supply migrants with beneficial backing to help attain economic self-reliance and to further integrate them into their host country.
Advancing the rights of human beings over the rights of states became much more important for resettlement organizations, especially after September 11, 2001. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, refugee admissions were halted. Refugees who were already approved for admission were then denied access and their cases were reevaluated under new security restrictions. Faith-based groups had to make sure people understood that not all refugees were terrorists and to eliminate prejudices against certain cultures.
American society continuously expands, not by adding completely assimilated persons into the old culture, but by broadening the definition of American culture. In a statement from U.S. Religious Leaders and Communities Regarding U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policies and Practices, the United States is a place of refuge for those escaping religious persecution, whose ideals protect religious minorities and religious freedom.
As an organization whose mission it is to address and assist in the expansion of migrant services, we support and are proud of all the religious institutions that are collaborating to help overcome challenges that immigrants and refugees face daily. We continue to advocate for those who are still struggling to find their place in the world and hope to restore our country’s allegiance in providing a pathway for migrants.