Immigrant Integration and Disintegration in an Era of Exclusionary Nationalism

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies

Editorial credit: Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Immigrant Integration and Disintegration in an Era of Exclusionary Nationalism

This is a working paper and draft chapter for the forthcoming book, Christianity and the Law of Migration, eds. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

Abstract

The historian John Higham attributed the United States’ success at immigrant integration in the 19th century to the nation’s confidence in “the ordinary processes of a free society” to meld “many peoples into one,” and the desire of immigrants “to share” in its life. (Higham 1975, 234). The foreign-born and their descendants continue to integrate in the United States, although with variances based on their “starting points and on the segment of American society … into which they integrate.” (NAS 2015, 3, 268). Yet, the United States trails other developed nations by standard integration metrics, and its more than 44 million immigrants encounter challenges and conditions, such as rising nativism, outdated immigration policies, administrative strategies that serve to “disintegrate” immigrant families and communities, and a rapidly changing labor market due to automation, robotization, and artificial intelligence. The paper explores competing versions of integration, including a Christian vision rooted in a commitment to human dignity and the full participation of immigrants in their communities and nations. Integration will always be conditioned by its local and national context, but the issues discussed in this chapter pertain to a wide variety of countries.


“Perhaps we made the mistake of establishing ourselves in a country that is not ours, but we already took roots here through our children.  Shouldn’t the government be more flexible for them?  My oldest son asks: ‘Where are my rights as a U.S. citizen?  Where is my right to live with my family and have a home?’”

Mother of three U.S. citizen children and wife of a deported immigrant

 

“You know, they have a word.  It sort of became old-fashioned.  It’s called a nationalist ….    You know what I am.  I’m a nationalist, okay.  I’m a nationalist.”

President Donald Trump

 

In Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1869-1925, the historian John Higham credited the nation’s success at integrating immigrants in the 19th century to the desire of immigrants “to share” in the nation’s life and the willingness of Americans not to demand too high a “level of solidarity” from them (Higham 1975, 234-235). Instead, the nation mostly “trust[ed] in the ordinary processes of a free society” to meld “many peoples into one.” (ibid., 234). The Americanization movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which peaked during World War I, departed from this approach. Driven by fear of divided immigrant loyalties, the United States invested heavily in English and civics classes, insisted that immigrants naturalize, adopted “America First” and other slogans, and embarked on a public/private crusade to instill allegiance to the nation (ibid., 242-247).

A comprehensive 2015 report on integration by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) recalled the Europeans who immigrated in the early 20th century with little education and high levels of illiteracy, and whose children entered the labor market in the midst of the Great Depression. Despite these immense challenges, this generation of immigrants and their descendants successfully integrated over time, a process enabled, in large part, by the expanding U.S. economy after World War II (NAS 2015, 248-249). Today’s immigrants and their descendants continue to integrate, albeit with variances based on their “starting points and on the segment of American society—the racial and ethnic groups, the legal status, the social class, and the geographic area—into which they integrate.” (NAS 2015, 3, 268).

The question arises, however: will the nation’s historic genius at integrating immigrants persist? With a record 44 million foreign-born U.S. residents and nearly double that number counting their US-born children, the stakes could not be higher. This chapter will explore the integration successes and challenges of U.S. immigrants and their progeny.  It examines the conditions in receiving societies that improve and diminish the integration prospects of immigrants.  These include, on the one hand, rising nationalism, nativism, and a rapidly changing labor market due to automation, robotization, and artificial intelligence, and, on the other hand, integration initiatives and strong mediating institutions.[1]

The chapter will begin by exploring different conceptions of integration, and conclude by reflecting on how Christianity might inform national and local integration policies.  While this chapter focuses on the U.S. context, the issues discussed are pertinent in a wide variety of countries experiencing significant immigration.

Conceptualizing Integration

The European Union (EU) has provided a helpful starting point for conceptualizing integration. In 2004, the EU adopted Common Basic Principles of Integration that define integration as “a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States” (EU 2004). This process creates rights and responsibilities on the part of the immigrant, including respect for the EU’s core values and access by immigrants to states institutions, goods and services “equal to national citizens.” (EU 2004). In 2011, the EU expanded this definition to reflect the role of countries of origin in facilitating integration through pre-departure initiatives, support to their diasporas, and circular migration policies (European Commission 2011). Several international processes, dialogues, and agreements have underscored the need for integration strategies that foreground human agency and that benefit both immigrants and receiving communities, making them more likely to garner public support.[2]

While liberal democracies, supranational entities, and regional and international agreements envision integration as a process leading to the full participation of immigrants in their new communities, this view is not universal.  A growing number of countries define themselves in terms of a common origin, race, ethnicity, religion, or exclusionary culture. Furthermore, the fundamental character of a country strongly influences the reception of immigrants, their success at integrating, and even the perception of what constitutes integration. Gulf Cooperation Council states, for example, have relatively open labor migration policies and immense foreign-born populations. However, they equate integration with the incorporation of foreign workers into their labor markets, without access to the rights, services, or benefits of citizenship.

Christianity’s core belief in universal human dignity and its global reach align with a vision of integration that responds holistically to immigrants as human beings and sees them as fully contributing members to the good of their communities. In that vein, U.S. settlement house leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that each immigrant group should be encouraged to contribute their gifts and the best of their own traditions to their new country (Higham 1975, 121, 252). In living with immigrants, they learned that countries could most effectively promote integration by offering immigrants a home and embracing their gifts, rather than seeking to erase their heritages (ibid., 256).

Pope Francis understands integration as “neither assimilation nor incorporation,” but “rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes” (Francis 2017). By this vision, integration is more than socio-economic advancement over generations. It provides an opportunity to build more just and inclusive societies, promote human flourishing, and unify culturally diverse persons based on their deepest values and longings.

How Immigrants in the U.S. are Faring

Social scientists take a more analytical approach to integration, examining metrics like educational attainment, income, political participation, occupational distribution, residential integration, intermarriage, homeownership, language proficiency, naturalization rates, and sense of belonging.[3] The 2015 NAS study found “substantial” socioeconomic integration—measured by education, occupation, earnings and poverty—by immigrants and their US-born descendants, with many qualifications and caveats.  In particular, it found:

  • “much more varied … skill levels” among the foreign-born than natives of the third generation and beyond, including a “disproportionate share of highly educated workers concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and health fields”;[4]
  • “[r]emarkably high” socioeconomic integration by the second generation;
  • “strong intergenerational progress in educational attainment,” albeit with marked “variations between and within … ethnoracial groups that reflect the different levels of human capital” of their immigrant parents;
  • significant progress by the children of Mexican and Central American immigrants compared to their parents, but not “parity with the general population of native-born”;
  • an “employment advantage” among immigrant men, particularly the least educated, over comparable native-born men in the second and third generations;
  • substantially lower rates of employment among immigrant women compared with native-born women, although the second and higher generation “regardless of ethnoracial group, approach parity” with the native-born;
  • improved earnings of foreign-born workers “relative to the native-born” based on their length of U.S. residence, although earnings “are still shaped by racial and ethnic stratification”;
  • acute integration challenges for the one in three immigrants without a high school education, who “have a long way to go to reach the middle class”; and
  • substantial improvement in “occupational position” in the second generation of those “concentrated in low status occupations,” but without reaching “parity with third and later generation Americans.” (NAS 2015, 248, 292-295)

Moreover, parity with natives does not always translate into positive integration outcomes.  In a well-recognized paradox, the well-being of the descendants of immigrants declines by three metrics – health, crime rates, and children in households without two parents – as they come to resemble natives (NAS 2015, 329-30).

The United States is no longer in the vanguard of integration among developed countries. The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), which measures and compares the integration policies of 38 countries based on 167 policy indicators, ranked the United States 9th out of 38 developed states. It found that the United States had created a “slightly favorable path for some immigrants to fully participate in society and become U.S. citizens,” but that “disproportionate fees, limited family visas, long backlogs, and insecure rights” denied too many U.S. residents the “dream of citizenship, a secure family life, and a good job.” (Huddleston et al. 2015).  The MIPEX report concluded that several countries “outperform” the United States in family reunification, allowing workers and students to secure permanent status, facilitating naturalization, and credentialing qualified foreign workers.

Other studies have found that the United States falls short of many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, EU, and Group of 20 states in naturalization, voter participation, homeownership rates, residential segregation, immigrant poverty rates, economic self-sufficiency, income inequality, and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and national origin (de Grauuw and Bloemraad 2017).

These conditions have worsened in recent years, as the Trump administration has crafted an array of administrative strategies to prevent immigrants from gaining permanent residence and citizenship (Kerwin and Warren 2019a).  Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, naturalization processing times and backlogs had ballooned (Jordan 2019; Stern and Dalal-Dheini 2020). While U.S. family-based immigration policies are generous in many respects, numerical limits on family-based visas have led to backlogs that exceed the life expectancy of many in the queue.[5] Moreover, once a visa becomes available, most intending immigrants must apply for it through a U.S. Embassy or consular office, a process that subjects many to multi-year bars to re-entry to the United States based on their prior unlawful presence (Kerwin and Warren 2019b).        

Conditions that Integrate and Disintegrate

Scholars have long recognized that the characteristics both of immigrants and of receiving societies influence immigrant integration. A series of papers from 2002, for example, identified as integration determinants “pre-existing ethnic or race relations within the host population; differences in labor markets and related institutions; the impact of government policies and programs, including immigration policy, policies for immigrant integration, and policies for the regulation of social institutions; and the changing nature of international boundaries, part of the process of globalization.” (Reitz 2002).  This section examines current conditions that particularly influence the reception and integration of immigrants. 

Rising Nationalism, Nativism, and Disintegration

The fundamental character and identity of a nation—defined, for present purposes, as how the majority or a dominant minority of its members conceive of their nation—strongly affect its reception of immigrants and their ability to integrate.

Civic nationalists believe that shared civic values and institutions bind the members of a state. Many seminal U.S. texts and speeches have strongly enunciated this vision. The Declaration of Independence speaks to the “self-evident” truths of equality and unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln characterized the United States as a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln 1863).

In his first inaugural address, George W. Bush said that American has “never been united by blood or birth or soil” and called the “American story” one of “a flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals.” (Bush 2001).  “The grandest of these ideals,” he said, “is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born.” (ibid.).[6]

Civil republicanism is not limited to the United States. At a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, French President Emmanuel Macron lauded his nation’s defense of universal values during World War I.  He argued that nationalism—which he called a “betrayal” of patriotism—threatened to “wipe out what’s most valuable about a nation, what brings it alive, what leads it to greatness, and what is most important: its moral values” (Macron 2018).

By contrast, populist leaders celebrate a core group of “people” within a state—often defined by race, religion, ethnicity nationality and ancestry—who alone deserve the rights, benefits and largesse conferred by state membership. By their telling, the political elite, press, and supranational and international institutions collude to subjugate the “people,” (Kerwin 2016, 123-124).  Populists intensify political polarization by frequent, rhetorical attacks on those they deem to be outsiders, particularly immigrants and refugees. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, has called immigrants “the scum of the earth” (The Guardian 2018), and has said that the “vast majority of potential migrants do not have good intentions.” (Gilbert 2019).

The “ideological core of nativism in every form,” Higham wrote presciently, is that “some influence originating from abroad” threatens “the very life of the nation from within.” (Higham 1975, 4). Donald Trump has regaled his supporters with the lyrics of a 1963 song called “The Snake,” which he has repurposed as a nativist anthem (Rosenberg 2018).  In it, a woman rescues a freezing snake and takes it into her home. Once revived, however, the snake fatally bites her. In Trump’s retelling, refugees and immigrants are the snake that will betray and consume their kindly, but naive hosts because that is their very nature. Similarly, Hungary and other Visegrád Group countries opposed the EU’s 2015 migrant relocation plan by characterizing asylum seekers as a threat to their security and to European civilization itself (Armstrong 2019, 26-27).

Nativism does not so much articulate problems with immigrants, as it blames them for a nation’s unresolved problems. As such, it often goes hand-in-hand with isolationism, understood as a retreat from the (foreign) source of a perceived threat. As Kristin Heyer argues in this volume, isolationism—like nativism—“also betrays a deeper opposition to the common good.”[7] It represents a failure to recognize the shared humanity of people across borders and rejects the imperative to work to promote cross-border human flourishing.

Nativism thrives in defensive, inwardly focused countries. It often finds fertile ground in nations and local communities with low overall immigrant populations (HIgham, 168, 181), but that have experienced recent increases in immigration, coupled with the emigration of natives. This combination can lead residents to fear cultural, racial, and religious displacement. In a telling juxtaposition, Table 1 highlights 14 African states among the 27 states whose populations are projected to double by 2050, and Table 2 lists some of the 37 states whose populations are projected to decline by 2050, some very significantly.

Table 1

Percent Population Increase Among 27 Doublers: 2017-2050

Source: Calculations made by Joseph Chamie based on projections from UN DESA (2017).

Table 2

Percent Population Decrease Among 37 Decliners: 2017-2050

Source: Calculations made by Joseph Chamie based on projections from UN DESA (2017). 

The states with aging populations in Table 2 would strongly benefit from an infusion of younger, working-age immigrants. Not coincidentally, however, many of these states have adopted exclusionary policies and are among the states that are least likely to want or embrace additional immigrants.

Nativism can also flourish in culturally diverse countries, particularly when the majority or a dominant minority population fears racial, cultural, or economic displacement. Such conditions have flourished under the administration of Donald Trump, whose systematic and strategic use of cruelty to dis-integrate immigrant communities has become one of its defining features. As a candidate and president, Trump has repeatedly stoked these fears: he has made bigoted comments, used racist code words and nativist tropes, and championed policies that stereotype and discriminate against persons from certain faiths and countries. Hate groups have identified him as a political champion who has created space and momentum for their resurgence (Daugherty 2019), and Trump has self-identified as a nationalist (Forgey 2018).

The Trump administration has sought to prevent and discourage immigrants from putting down roots by deploying tactics that destabilize and instill fear in immigrant communities, and that impede the path to permanent residence and citizenship.  It has engaged in indiscriminate deportations that divide and impoverish the nation’s 3.3 million mixed-status families (Kerwin, Alulema and Nicholson 2018).  It has sought to remove forms of protected status, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, from hundreds of thousands of immigrants. The President has proposed limiting family-based immigration to spouses and minor children (The White House 2017), and endorsed legislation to cut legal immigration (mostly family-based) in half.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued a “public-charge” regulation that would exclude large numbers of low-income, working-class immigrants from admission and adjustment to permanent residence.[8] The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a proposed regulation that would deny public housing assistance to families with an undocumented[9] household member. The president has also expressed support for ending (by fiat) birthright citizenship for the children of non-citizens, and the administration has prioritized the denaturalization of citizens.

Higham points out the “monotony” of nativist arguments, whose “charges and complaints … sounded in endless reiteration,” including those of the lawless immigrant bent on disorder and violence (Higham 1975, 55, 131). The Trump administration has drawn from the nativist script to describe Syrian refugees, Central American asylum-seekers, and other groups as a public safety and national security menace. Such repeated attacks generate hostility towards immigrants and minorities and create an environment that impedes integration. The administration has also perfected nativist tactics like guilt by association. If an undocumented person or asylum-seeker, for example, commits a violent crime, the administration publicizes and treats their status as if it were the cause of the crime, but its does not ascribe crimes and terrorist acts committed by white citizens to their racial identity or citizenship status. Furthermore, these tactics now have an institutional home: the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office known as Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) that among its other stated objectives seeks to study “the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.” (ICE 2019). Yet immigrant crime rates fall well below native rates, and high rates of immigration do not adversely affect aggregate crime rates (NAS 2015, 326-27).

 Public Support for Nativist Policies

Administrations turn over regularly, but the voting public does not, making it vitally important to understand the beliefs, needs, and experiences of those who favor the administration’s nativist policies. Pundits offer a variety of explanations, such as national security fears driven by 9/11 and terrorist attacks in Europe; the economic scarring caused by the Great Recession and lack of accountability for this crisis; and the misperception that the federal government favors undocumented immigrants by poorly enforcing its immigration laws.  Several studies, however, have concluded that white voter fears of racial displacement better explain the appeal of the president’s policies (Jacobs 2018 and 2019).

In an influential 2017 study, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported that white working class residents (not college educated) felt displaced, threatened, and like strangers “in their own” country. The study found that:

  • 68 percent of the white working class and 55 percent of the general public believes that the American way of life needed to be protected from foreign-influence;
  • 68 percent of this group and a majority of U.S. citizens overall think that the United States is at risk of losing its cultural identity;
  • 62 percent of this group thinks that the growing numbers of immigrants threaten U.S. culture;
  • Just 46 percent believe in the American dream, that is, if you work hard, you can improve your situation and achieve your goals;
  • 45 percent who live in their hometown indicate its quality of life has deteriorated since their childhood and only 17 percent think it has improved;
  • 65 percent believe that the American way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s;
  • 40 percent think that efforts to increase diversity almost always come “at the expense of whites”;
  • 46 percent think that the growing numbers of newcomers threaten “traditional American customs and values.” (Jones, Cox and Lienesch  2017).

As Heyer writes, these feelings reflect a sense “of real and perceived loss – and accompanying grief and resentment” and highlight the importance of rebuilding “public trust and a shared sense of community.”[10] Effectively addressing the underlying conditions that give rise to these concerns should be a high national priority and it will be essential to promoting a more receptive attitude toward immigrants.

Lack of Consensus on National Interests and Immigration Policy

Immigration policymaking might be conceived as the process of attempting to align a country’s interests, values, and needs, with its admissions laws and integration policies.[11] Congressional debates, presidential signing statements and immigration legislation over the last half-century reveal a rough consensus on the interests and values –often observed in the breach– that should underlie U.S. immigration laws. These include:

  • Family reunification and preservation;
  • non-discrimination on the basis of national origin, race, or privilege;
  • fairness in admissions policies and due process in removal decisions;
  • the responsibility to project values like liberty, freedom, and human dignity;
  • economic competitiveness, hard work, self-sufficiency, and the drive to succeed;
  • affording all residents access to “the benefits of a free and open society” (Reagan 1986), and;
  • respect for the rule of law as reflected in a system characterized by high rates of legal migration (Kerwin and Warren 2017, 298-301).

Yet these values and interests do not resonate as they once did across the political spectrum.

While there has long been consensus on the need to enforce the nation’s antiquated immigration laws, absent recognition of the affirmative benefits of immigration and refugee protection, meaningful reform will remain elusive. As it stands, the United States has not overhauled its legal immigration system in 55 years. In addition, it has failed for two decades to offer a path to status for its 10.6 million undocumented residents (Warren 2020), which include roughly:

  • 5 million person who have been tentatively approved for a family-based visa;
  • nearly 4 million parents of U.S. citizens and LPRs;
  • two million persons that have lived in the United States for 20 years or more;
  • three million persons brought to the United States at age 16 or younger; and
  • 8 million workers.

The nation’s failure to provide a path to citizenship to these groups impedes their integration and that of their families. Along those lines, the NAS report identified three main barriers to immigrant integration: the United States’ failure to provide legal status to undocumented residents and this failure’s impact on their U.S. citizen children; distinct integration outcomes and patterns by race; and the relatively low rate of naturalization among immigrants.

National and Local Integration Policies

Federal policies can advance or inhibit integration, but the integration process invariably occurs in local communities. State and local integration responses range from partnerships with federal agencies on immigration enforcement and the denial of public services to non-citizen residents, to policies that extend the full benefits of membership to immigrants of all statuses and resistance to immigration enforcement partnerships with the federal government out of concern that they undermine public safety (Suro 2015, 4). Due to variations in state integration policies, local integration policies, and local and state integration policies within the same state, the integration prospects of immigrants in New York City or Los Angeles differ from those in Atlanta or Minneapolis, which also differ from those in rural Georgia or Minnesota. A particularly positive development has been the expansion of state and local immigrant affairs offices—as well as commissions, task forces, and programs—that celebrate the contributions of immigrants, promote citizenship, and connect immigrant communities to government agencies, the police, and private institutions (de Grauuw and Bloemraad 2017, 112-115).

Localities have also increasingly collaborated to advance pro-integration policies and to oppose the exclusionary federal agenda. The Cities of Action Network, for example, consists of 175 U.S. mayors and county executives, representing 70 million persons, devoted to the safety of all of their members, to immigrant rights, and to the participation and inclusion of immigrants in civic life.  Welcoming America, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, has developed a formal certification process—based on seven requirements and detailed benchmarks—for city and county governments that wish to become certified welcoming communities. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states and localities have also offered economic relief and access to health care to immigrants, who have been excluded from federal relief and stimulus programs, and they have supported immigrant “essential workers,” including those without status (Suro and Findling 2020).

The expansion of integration efforts at the local level stands in contrast to federal policies.  Throughout much of its history, the U.S. response to concerns about immigration has been to restrict or exclude immigrants on the one hand, and to trust in their drive and talent and in the nation’s integrative power on the other.[12]  Els de Grauuw and Irene Bloemraad have criticized the modesty of the federal government’s “laissez-faire” integration policies, which have mostly supported naturalization and related services. They particularly lament the federal government’s failure to connect and build synergies between federal, state, local, and civil society integration actors (de Grauuw and Bloemraad 2017).

A stark example of the federal government’s “laissez-faire” approach to integration can be seen in its provision of social supports .The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, approved by 164 states and endorsed by the UN General Assembly on December 19, 2018, affirmed the need for all immigrants, irrespective of status, to “exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services” (GCM § 31).[13] In the United States, however, immigrant access to public benefits and services is severely restricted.[14] Temporary visa holders (non-immigrants) and undocumented immigrants do not qualify for federal welfare benefits, with exceptions for certain populations and certain benefits.[15] Lawful permanent residents cannot receive “means-tested” federal benefits for five years or more.[16] The federal government also extends means-tested benefits to other “qualified” immigrants like refugees, asylees and other humanitarian migrants, as well as to veterans and military personnel, subject to time and eligibility restrictions.[17] Yet U.S. immigrants endure harsh criticism for using the limited benefits and services for which they are eligible.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)—which seeks to promote self-sufficiency through early employment—may be the only exception to laissez-faire national integration policies. USRAP operates as a partnership between multiple federal agencies, states, localities, and civil society institutions. The Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) division of the U.S. Department of State (DOS) enters “cooperative agreements” with national voluntary agencies to provide reception and placement services that cover housing, food, and other settlement costs during the refugees’ first 30 to 90 days in the nation. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement provides cash assistance, medical assistance, and social service funding through state refugee coordinators. The community-based affiliates of national voluntary agencies provide hands-on resettlement assistance and services. However, funding and severe refugee admission cuts have devastated USRAP and its community-based infrastructure (Kerwin 2019).

Despite its limitations, USRAP has saved millions of lives in its 40-year history, and it represents a case study in how modest federal investments can significantly contribute to integration. A study of the socio-economic advancement of 1.1 million refugees that arrived between 1987 and 2016 found that refugee integration increases dramatically over time (Kerwin 2018).  Refugees who arrived between 1987 and 1996 exceeded not just later arrivals, but also the total U.S. population in median personal income ($28,000 to $23,000), homeownership (41 to 37 percent), percent above the poverty line (86 to 84 percent), access to a computer and the internet (82 to 75 percent), and health insurance (93 to 91 percent).

The Uncertain Future of Work

The ability of immigrants to improve their life prospects through work has played a central role in the integration of immigrants to the United States and elsewhere. Work is critical for economic viability (particularly in light of limited access to social safety net programs), as a point of social connection, and as a framing narrative regarding the contribution of immigrants to the broader society. However, immigrants face a rapidly changing labor market due to advances in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Lower-income, less credentialed immigrant workers occupy a precarious position in the U.S. and global economies since automation will decimate many jobs that they fill at high rates (CFR 2018, 3). Several studies point to the potential for immense dislocation and job displacement caused by technological advances. They conclude that:

  • two-thirds of jobs in developing countries could be “susceptible” to automation in coming decades (World Bank Group 2016, 23, 126);
  • thirty percent of work activities could be displaced (MGI 2017, 28);
  • jobs in transportation and logistics, office and administrative support, production and services, sales, and construction are highly susceptible to computerization over the next two decades (Frey and Osbourne 2013); and
  • at least one-third of the tasks performed in 60 percent of occupations can already be automated (MGI 2017, 25-26).

On the other hand, some of the jobs filled by immigrants at high rates, such as nursing, elder care, and domestic work, are expanding (ILO 2018), and the greater willingness of migrants to move affords them a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing job market. The availability of sufficient, decent work and success in promoting social cohesion, despite the disruptions and dislocations in the labor market, will be of overriding importance to immigrant integration in the foreseeable future.

Mediating Institutions and Integration Fundamentals

Integration occurs, in part, through institutions that nurture, educate, employ, train, and empower immigrants. Family, the workplace, labor unions, political parties, public schools, faith communities, the armed forces, and civic associations have traditionally provided immigrants with the resources, tools, and human and social capital to succeed in the broader society. In the immigration field, U.S. civil society institutions have grown in sophistication, number, and ambition over the years (Campos 2014; Kerwin et al. 2017).

Integrating institutions, in turn, depend on a broader set of integration fundamentals. The United States’ relatively open labor market, for example, has provided immigrants and their children with abundant opportunities to work, to improve their socioeconomic standing, and to contribute to the U.S. economy. The U.S. Constitution affords rights to “persons,” not only to citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees citizenship by birth, ensuring that immigrant families can never become part of a hereditary underclass of noncitizens.

U.S. immigration policy prioritizes the reunification of families, an institution that provides material, social, and emotional support in the integration process (Gubernskaya and Dreby 2017); see also Hing, “In Defense of Chain Migration”). The U.S. tradition of religious freedom allows faith-based institutions—many created by and for earlier generations of immigrants (Kerwin 2014)—to provide refuge, a source of respectability, and resources that facilitate integration (NAS  2015, 320-321).  A survey of 170 U.S. Catholic institutions, for example, identified dozens of pastoral, social, health, housing, food, educational, organizing, and legal service programs provided to immigrants and their families by Catholic parishes (Kerwin and Nicholson 2019).

Yet many of these integration pillars face ideological and political opposition. President Trump, for example, has incorrectly argued that he can revoke birthright citizenship for the children of non-citizens by executive fiat. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, which prohibits states from denying schooling through high school to undocumented children, may be vulnerable in light of the Supreme Court’s changed composition. Participants in the previously mentioned survey of Catholic institutions most frequently identified “fear of apprehension and deportation” as negatively impacting immigrants’ access to their services (ibid.).  Thus, while immigrants need robust mediating institutions, many of the institutions that met this need for earlier generations of immigrants face severe challenges.

Christianity, Migration, and Integration

In these times marked by such challenges to immigrants’ welfare and integration, resources from the Christian tradition can help to restore to the immigration debate concepts such as human dignity, the common good, and reverence for the vulnerable. They can help chart a more life-giving, person-centered approach to a phenomenon that has been “part of the human experience throughout history” (GCM § 8). A Christian worldview can help to re-appropriate concepts like sovereignty, security, and the rule of law that speak to the responsibility to protect and safeguard the rights of all persons, but that have been used to exclude and marginalize immigrants. It can challenge demeaning labels like “illegal aliens” (who are neither) or “aggravated felons” (a misnomer) or “invading hordes” (a lie) that demagogues use to manipulate public opinion.  Religious institutions can prioritize the defense, empowerment, and integration of immigrants at their moment of great need. As in past eras, they can help immigrants to weather ugly nativist periods, like the present.

The Judeo-Christian tradition reveres migrants based on its own long-experience of exile, exodus, dispersion, and evangelization. In the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, the imperative not to oppress the stranger recurs 36 times. Jesus himself identified with newcomers and taught that nations will be judged by their treatment of migrants and others in need.[18]

Administrations that use the law to exclude and marginalize immigrants have found it more difficult to twist Scripture for their political purposes. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, offered a biblical defense of the administration’s policy to separate children from their asylum-seeking parents at the US-Mexico border, without any serious plan to reunite them.  He cited Romans 13:1 in which St. Paul urges: “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God (New American Bible).”  In fact, the higher authorities also crucified Jesus and, in our era, have perpetrated genocide, slavery, apartheid, the forced displacement of 79 million persons, and the cruel separation of children from their parents. Moreover, they have largely done so under color of law—ruling by law, but flaunting the rule of law.

If Sessions had wanted to draw further from Romans 13, he could have cited: “Love does no evil to the neighbor: hence, love is the fulfillment of law.” (Romans 13:10, NAB). The Scribes and Pharisees lived in strict accordance with the laws, but failed to live according to its spirit. The Trump administration fails on both counts, as do those who ignore or actively endorse its myriad cruelties towards immigrants.

Faith leaders often hear that immigrants, particularly those without status, need to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. This admonition seems selective, if not misplaced, in that lack of status exposes persons to all manner of criminality and illegality. More to the point, however, this parable means the opposite of how nativists chose to read it. In Matthew 22:15–22, the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus—as if they want to avail themselves of his wisdom—if it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. They hypocritically praise Jesus for his truthfulness and feign deference to him, but have found rare common cause in an attempt to entrap and perhaps have him executed.

To the Pharisees, paying taxes to the pagan occupying government violates the Torah. If Jesus supports paying this tax, he will lose favor with those who have declared him their King. The Herodians, in turn, support Roman rule. If Jesus opposes paying taxes, he could be killed as a political criminal and revolutionary. Jesus ultimately tells them to repay to “Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt.12:21, NAB).  Yet this reply leads to the question: what belongs to God and what to Caesar?  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, everything belongs to God—our love, our allegiance, our land, and our very lives. Thus, Caesar can collect the coins that bear his image, but here is the cosmic punch line: ultimately he will not be able to keep what he collects. Instead, he will be judged by how truly he has loved his neighbor, including the stranger in his midst.

Of course, immigrants should respect their new countries’ laws, norms, and institutions. Receiving communities, in turn, should be open to revitalization and renewal by immigrants.  Immigrants embody traits that U.S. residents have long thought to be emblematic of their country, like hard work, courage, self-sacrifice, a commitment to family, belief in the American dream, a reverence for freedom, and hope. They can remind the long-settled what it means to be an American and that what unites the country can be stronger than what divides it. They can be a means of spiritual renewal through their hope, devotion, and religious practices. Finally, in the way the despised foreigner and schismatic models compassion in Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable (Luke 17: 11-19), immigrants can also be a means of conversion by the way they live their faith. As Pope Francis eloquently put it, they are “an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, a more fraternal world and a more open and evangelical Christian community.” (Francis 2013). 

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Suggested Reading

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Huddleston, Thomas, Ozge Bilgili, Anne-Lind Joki, and Zvezda Vankova. 2015. Migration Policy Index 2015. Barcelona/Brussels: Barcelona Center for International Affairs and Migration Policy Group. http://www.mipex.eu/

Jones, Robert P., Daniel Cox, and Rachel Lienesch. 2017. “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump | PRRI/The Atlantic Report.”  Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute.

Kerwin, Donald. 2014.  U.S. Catholic Institutions and Immigrant Integration: Will the Church Rise to the Challenge. Vatican City: Lateran University Press. https://cmsny.org/publications/us-catholic-institutions-and-immigrant-integration-will-the-church-rise-to-the-challenge/

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National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. Panel on the Integration of Immigrants into American Society, M.C. Waters and M.G. Pineau, Eds. Committee on Population, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/21746.

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[1] The chapter also assumes that the well-known drivers of migration and integration dynamics will re-emerge after the trauma, economic fall-out, and policy restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

[2] These include the processes leading to the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees, as well as the High Level Dialogues at the United Nations on International Migration and Development and state-led dialogues through the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).

[3] Even these metrics can seem far removed from integrating experiences like mastering the complexities of a subway system, learning the idioms necessary to negotiate the workplace, participating in school activities, or assuming a leadership role in a faith community.

[4] The U.S. legally resident foreign-born population has the same overall percentage of skilled workers (41 percent) as the native population (Warren 2018).

[5] For a detailed discussion of family-based immigration, see Bill Ong Hing, “In Defense of Chain Migration,” in Christianity and the Law of Migration, ed. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

[6] U.S. leaders have also long expressed pride in the United States as a “beacon” of freedom (Reagan 1989), “radiating” its ideals and values to the world (Higham 1975, 63).

[7] Kristin E. Heyer, “Migration, Social Responsibility, and Moral Imagination: Resources from Christian Ethics,” in Christianity and the Law of Migration, ed. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

[8] In a similar vein, the president issued a proclamation that would suspend legal immigration by persons who cannot prove they “will be covered by approved health insurance” or that they possess “the financial resources to pay for reasonably foreseeable medical costs” (Trump 2019).

[9] The author uses the term “undocumented” to describe U.S. residents that lack legal immigration status. This term is factually inaccurate in that many undocumented persons possess identity and other documents.  It is also reductive as it speaks to only one, relatively superficial characteristic of this population.  However, it is less offensive than the term “illegal,” which implies that human beings can be illegal, and it is no worse than the term “unauthorized.”  In addition, the term undocumented is widely understood to refer to persons without legal immigration status.

[10] Heyer, “Migration, Social Responsibility, and Moral Imagination.” See also, Gemma Tulud Cruz, “When the Poor Knock on Our Door: A Theological Response to Unwanted Migration,” in in Christianity and the Law of Migration, ed. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

[11] Of course, states should also defend and respect the rights of persons whose survival or security have led them to migrate, whether or not they fit neatly into legal admissions categories (Hollenbach 2016) .  See also, Michele Pistone, “The State of the Law on Refugees, Asylees, and Stateless Persons,” in Christianity and the Law of Migration, ed. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

[12] As stated, the Americanization movement pursued a third, more pro-active tack.

[13] The United States withdrew from the negotiations of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in December 2017.

[14] The new rule on the public charge ground of inadmissibility expands the list of benefits that can be considered in public charge determinations, and has led to diminished participation by immigrants and their families in these programs.

[15] Non-immigrants and undocumented immigrants are eligible for emergency medical care, disaster relief, Medicaid benefits to children and pregnant women, the National School Lunch Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Head Start. Undocumented children can also attend public school through high school.

[16] Means-tested benefits include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, regular Medicaid, and State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

[17] Most states, however, use their own funding to supplement coverage to “qualified” immigrants and to extend coverage to those who do not qualify for federal aid.

[18] These themes are explored by other authors in this book. See Safwat Marzouk, “Different Kinds of Foreignness: The Hebrew Bible’s Terminology for Foreigners,” Raj Nadella, “From Theoxenia to Philoxenia: New Testament Perspectives on Hospitality to Strangers,” and Luis Rivera-Pagan, “Towards a Theology of Migration,” in Christianity and the Law of Migration, ed. Silas W. Allard, Kristin E. Heyer, and Raj Nadella (London: Routledge, 2021).

 

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication July 29, 2020