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Faith groups support immigration reform, but many believers remain anxious about the immigrants them

POSTED: March 30, 2016 10:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Public Religion Research Institute

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Majorities in all religious groups support immigration policy that provides a path to legal citizenship or residency, yet many of those same believers are more likely than other Americans to express anxiety about how immigrants affect American culture, according to a new report on immigration from Public Religion Research Institute.

Around four-in-10 white mainline Protestants (43 percent), white Catholics (41 percent) and Mormons (38 percent), and a majority of white evangelical Protestants (53 percent) say that growing numbers of immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values, PRRI found. That compares with 34 percent of all Americans expressing the same fear.

This tension between welcoming immigrants to the U.S. and accepting them as neighbors illustrates how fear of the unknown conflicts with religious calls to care for the stranger, faith leaders said.

"This is a situation that's gone on as long as this country has existed," said Patricia Zapor, communications director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. "If someone has a different language, customs, skin color or religion, that makes people nervous."

As the migrant crisis continues in Europe, many U.S. religious leaders are calling for their members and all Americans to open their communities to newcomers.

Fear of the stranger

Zapor's organization partners with local affiliates to support immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens or legal residents. CLINIC provides training and legal support.

PRRI's report shows that majorities of all faith groups and more than three-quarters of U.S. adults (77 percent) support immigration policies that allow immigrants living here illegally to become citizens or permanent legal residents.

The report is based on more than 40,000 interviews with adults across the U.S., which took place between April 2015 and January 2016. PRRI's American Values Atlas allows people to explore the results on a state-by-state level.

Support for immigration reform has remained remarkably constant in recent years, said Daniel Cox, PRRI's director of research. It doesn't appear to be affected by global terrorist attacks or controversial calls for immigration limitations from presidential candidates in the same way that these events affect people's views on the immigrants themselves.

"There is a sort of dissonance here, where even people of faith … worry that, if we let all these immigrants in, our country wouldn't be the same" and it wouldn't be as safe, Cox said.

Politicians and even religious leaders sometimes validate these instinctual anxieties.

"All immigration needs to be stopped until we have a proper way of vetting people that want to come into our country," said the Rev. Franklin Graham on Tuesday.

Fear of the stranger has always been a part of life, but the Old Testament scriptures, as well as New Testament parables like the story of the Good Samaritan, offer lessons on how to work through fear and serve people in need, Zapor said. People of faith who hesitate to put these teachings into action in their own life fail to recognize that their own ancestors benefitted from them.

"Catholics used to be the newcomers in this country. Anti-Catholicism was a huge hurdle," she said. "But white Catholics have become kind of mainstream, and they're reacting to newcomers" the way previous generations reacted to them.

Forty-one percent of white Catholics believe that the growing number of immigrants to the U.S. threaten traditional American values, compared to 44 percent who say immigrants strengthen society, PRRI reported.

CLINIC recently launched a parish outreach program that will educate Catholics about church teachings on immigration and offer examples of how individual believers can make a difference for newcomers to the U.S. It may help believers overcome their instinctual fear of the unknown, Zapor noted.

The organization is joined in this work by groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, which gets evangelical Christians involved in efforts to create a more welcoming environment in the U.S. for people who seek a new life here.

"Teaching an English class or helping immigrants go through the process of becoming a citizen are very effective (initiatives) at a parish level," Zapor said. Serving the stranger requires people to "get to know who's in their community."

Members respond

Over Easter weekend, LDS Church leaders instructed Mormon women to be proactive in serving the needs of people who are displaced from their homeland. On Monday, the church launched a website to offer "resources and ideas in meeting the needs of refugees," the Deseret News reported.

Media coverage of these initiatives highlighted the LDS Church's long history of caring for immigrants, as well as the quick response from Mormons. Deb Coffey, the executive director of the Utah Refugee Center, said that her phone was ringing off the hook and her email inbox was full on Monday.

These developments run counter to PRRI's survey of 740 Mormons, which found that many were anxious about newcomers' impact on America.

Nearly four-in-10 Mormons (38 percent) believe that the growing number of immigrants threatens traditional American customs and values, compared to 45 percent who say these newcomers strengthen society, PRRI reported.

As Zapor noted, Catholic advocates for legal immigration face a similar problem. The church's social teaching encourages kindness toward the stranger and modern leaders like Pope Francis advocate for a more humane immigration process. But people in the pews are often unaware of these beliefs, and allow themselves to be guided by fear.

"People who are here first are suspicious of who comes next," Zapor said. "Part of the church's approach is to help people — the 'already heres' — become comfortable with newcomers."

Non-Christian, non-white

Among the groups less likely to need encouragement to overcome anxiety about immigrants, PRRI found, are people of color and members of non-Christian faith groups.

"At least seven in 10 Unitarian Universalists (81 percent), Hindus (73 percent), Muslims (72 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (70 percent) say that newcomers (in) the U.S. strengthen the country," PRRI reported. Members of these groups are also supportive of immigration reform that would allow people to become citizens or permanent legal residents.

Fewer than 15 percent of Jews (13 percent), Black Protestants (12 percent), Buddhists (11 percent) and Muslims (10 percent) said that illegal immigrants should be identified and deported, according to PRRI.

Orthodox Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses are also exceptions to religious groups fearing immigrants. A majority of both groups (51 percent and 54 percent, respectively) say that immigrants strengthen American society.

Generation gap

Evangelicals are more likely than members of other faith groups to advocate for deportation and view immigrants as a threat to American culture. However, attitudes within the denomination vary significantly, PRRI reported.

For example, more than half of young white evangelical Protestants (55 percent) say that newcomers strengthen American society, compared to 23 percent of senior white evangelicals.

Variations in life experience likely cause these generational gaps, Cox said, noting that members of the millennial generation are more likely than older Americans to have been exposed to diversity from a young age.

"Young evangelical Protestants are members of a religiously, ethnically and culturally diverse generation. They're more likely to engage with people from different backgrounds," he said.

If faith leaders want to make members of their churches more comfortable with immigrants, they may need to increase face-to-face interactions. PRRI's report implied that personal relationships decrease fear of newcomers, Cox added.

"You accept people with different backgrounds when you know them," he said. "When (immigrants) are your friends and colleagues, it plays a pretty significant role in your views."
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