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From Tunnel Vision To Bridge Building: Religion In The Immigration Debate

Ursa Ghazi wrote “From Tunnel Vision To Bridge Building: Religion In The Immigration Debate” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

In November 2015, an unprecedented number of United States (US) governors began to issue statements opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their states’ borders. Soon, state lawmakers, members of Congress, and mayors issued statements of their own regarding the manifold risks to national security if the US were to continue admitting Syrian refugees. (1) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump even went so far as to propose a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the US and suggested the need for a database to monitor Muslims in the country. These statements were made in response to the terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015, in Paris, for which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took responsibility, and the discovery of a passport allegedly connected to a Syrian refugee at the scene.

In Europe, French mayors, the Slovakian Prime Minister, and government officials in Cyprus, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic also echoed the anxiety and xenophobia characterizing some US responses to the Paris attacks. Though these officials cited concerns about security and cultural incompatibility to defend their discriminatory attitudes toward Syrians and Muslims, there is a bigger issue at play.

Politically charged statements and ratings-driven cable news outlets often portray the role of religion in immigration and migration as a problem. What this kind of tunnel vision fails to see is that religious identity and religious institutions are assets to the project of immigrant integration.

A small network of American and European cities is already harnessing this asset to build cohesive and resilient communities in positive

and inspiring ways. While there are existing policies in European countries and the US that protect the rights of religious minorities and promote interreligious and intercultural understanding among migrant and receiving communities, there is a lot more that can be done.

According to the United Nations (UN), there were 244 million migrants, or people living in countries other than their countries of birth, worldwide in 2015. This number includes almost 20 million refugees. In order to respond effectively to the growing waves of international migration, while noting that migration and immigration challenges differ from context to context, it is incumbent upon policymakers to do four things: (1) broaden their perspectives on the role of religion in immigration; (2) recognize the importance of religious identities and communities in the lives of immigrants; (3) acknowledge and support the role of religious social service agencies; (4) and learn from the promising work of cities in Europe and the US that have started to implement policies and practices that embrace the many ways in which religion plays a positive role in immigrant integration.

Religion and Integration

Before understanding how religion can be positively engaged in conversations about immigrant integration, it is important to understand the different ways that religion is conceptualized in US and European societies. A recent anecdote from Germany helps illustrate this point.

German journalist Anna Sauerbrey wrote an op-ed in July 2015 for the New York Times about the tendency in European countries to discriminate against Muslim immigrant communities. She told the story of Betul Ulusoy, a law school graduate who was initially denied a municipal trainee job in Berlin because her headscarf was perceived to violate Berlin’s religion neutrality policy. This decision stirred tension among Berlin’s Muslim community. Sauerbrey faults neutrality laws in European countries, which attempt to secularize the public sphere, for instigating this tension. “At the heart of Europe’s neutrality laws, there’s a bitter misunderstanding: being antireligious is not neutral,” she writes. “It doesn’t heal the cultural divide that can come with immigration, but emphasizes it.” (2)

It is true that the role of religion in public life is understood very differently in European countries like Germany and France than in the US. In his book Immigrant Faith: Patterns of Immigrant Religion in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, sociologist Phillip Connor discusses the ways that religion can function as both a bridge and a barrier for immigrants. “These different religious contexts can make for profound differences in the way immigrants use religion to psychologically adapt in the new country, succeed economically, and become full members of society,” he writes. (3)

Despite these different contexts, integration policies in Europe and the US recognize the positive role that religious communities can play in integration efforts. The Council of the European Union defines integration as a “dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States” in its Common Agenda for Integration Framework on Immigration. (4) Likewise in the Federal Strategic Action Plan, issued in 2015 by the White House Taskforce on New Americans, integration is defined as a “dynamic two-way process that brings together newcomers and the long-time residents of communities into which they settle (“receiving communities”) to foster greater understanding, promote inclusiveness, speed up economic success, and build secure, vibrant and cohesive communities.” (5) Both documents highlight the role of religious communities and interreligious understanding as positive forces for integration efforts. A number of studies on immigration in Europe and the US support these statements. (6)

Religious Lives of Immigrants

In both contexts, new arrivals rely on religious communities – of their own religious traditions or others’ – for spiritual, moral, economic, professional, educational and other kinds of support while settling into their new environments. This is a historical and present-day reality. According to Joseph Palacios, a sociologist of political culture at Georgetown University, post-civil rights movement era immigrants in the US “turn to religious institutions as a first institution that bring them into a new associational life that they must choose.” (7) In a 2007 essay about the involvement of Mexican immigrants in faith-based community organizing in the US, Palacios writes about the social capital and civic engagement that religious communities instill in the lives of immigrants. After conducting participant observer research with faith-based community organizations in California, he considers that religious identities and religious involvement of immigrants in congregations inevitably leads to socially and politically active citizens. “This first step into American religious life begins a process of moving the immigrant into precitizen activities within religious structures that act as schools for public life and actual citizenship,” he notes.

Other studies have shown that immigrants, more than others, tend to exhibit strong religious identities, practices, and involvement in various religious congregations. Political scientist Michael Foley and sociologist Dean Hoge note in Religion and the New Immigrants that “the one organization in civil society to which immigrants tend to belong with greater frequency than the larger population is the local worship community.” (8) Additionally, the process of immigrating is a contributing factor to their experiences of religiosity. They also state that “immigrants to the United States from most parts of the world tend to be more actively religious after immigration than they were in the home countries before coming.” These studies show that immigrants display higher degrees of religious engagement than other types of communities, but why is it that religious life is so critical to their experiences, particularly in the US?

While there are likely a number of factors that contribute to immigrant religiosity, a primary reason is that religious communities function as spiritual and moral resources. American sociologist Peter Kivisto writes in Religion and Immigration about three critical studies of immigrant populations in the US, Western Europe, and Australia. In all three regions, researchers found that “regular religious participation contributed to positive emotional/mental health outcomes.” (9)

Consider the trials and tribulations that immigrants undergo in the process of leaving their homes. For those involved in the recent wave of migration into Europe, many flee from violent conflict and war. Others are economic migrants driven from their homes as a result of dire poverty, economic stress, lack of professional opportunities and other challenges. Legal pathways to immigration are not always available, so families invest the limited resources they have to navigate dangerous journeys to better lives. At the end of the trek, many face deportation or detention at the borders upon arrival. It is no surprise that immigrants seek out religious communities and spiritual resources to help them deal with the trauma that accompanies such experiences.

There are countless examples, from the New Sanctuary Movement in the US to Caritas, the Catholic humanitarian agency in Europe, of religious communities stepping up to house and resettle immigrants while offering spiritual resources in the process. (10) This is why Foley and Hoge, like Palacios, refer to immigrant religious communities as schools: “Churches, mosques, temples, and other sorts of worship communities are schools for living, where immigrants and others address many of the issues of living in a strange new land and acquire tools and resources, moral and spiritual, as well as social or economic, for making their way in our society.” (11)

Social Services of Religious Institutions

As noted by Foley and Hoge, religious communities and religiously-affiliated social service organizations are often at the forefront of offering economic resources and social services to new immigrants. In a qualitative survey of refugee resettlement and assistance organizations in the immigration gateway cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Sacramento, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, sociologist Stephanie Nawyn highlights the role religiously-affiliated social service providers play in the lives of immigrants.

Of the thirty-six agencies Nawyn studied, 18 are religiously-affiliated organizations, which effectively mobilized their constituents to provide financial and other resources for refugee resettlement efforts. What made their efforts distinct from secular resettlement agencies, according to Nawyn, was their use of religious and interfaith rhetoric directed at larger networks of constituents from within their faith or religious communities to build community support. Nawyn notes that “for faith-based NGOs, common religious values between an NGO and a faith community facilitate recruitment of volunteer labor and in-kind donations” and that “the majority of organizations that resettle refugees in the United States are faith-based.” (12)

Faith-based social services go beyond refugee resettlement. Organizations like Catholic Charities provide dedicated community centers, caseworkers, soup kitchens and children’s programs. The Islamic Circle of North America’s social service agency, ICNA Relief, operates food pantries, offers disaster relief, and runs women’s shelters. Congregations also provide language classes and career support. Indeed, it has been found that “some formal congregational initiatives, like English as a Second Language (ESL) and computer literacy programs, have a direct bearing on members’ occupational readiness, but they also bear on other aspects of citizenship.” (13)

The intent here is not to argue that religious institutions should take on the roles that resource-poor municipalities should be playing. Rather, policymakers should recognize that religious organizations are actively involved in immigrant integration efforts. By connecting them to each other and to their secular counterparts and incorporating them into integration plans, policymakers can be even more effective in welcoming and integrating new arrivals.

What’s Right with Cities

Although immigrant integration efforts of religiously affiliated groups and organizations are not monitored in any official way by government agencies, cities in both Europe and the US have acknowledged the critical role that religious communities play in resettling and supporting immigrants.

The Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians was the first such office established in the US in 1998. It is now a part of a network of over sixty municipalities in the US with dedicated welcoming initiatives. This network is cultivated by Welcoming America, a national non-profit organization dedicated to building immigrant-friendly communities across the country. While a number of the cities within this network engage with faith leaders as stakeholders and faith-based service providers as participants in their integration work, few are as explicit about the role of religious communities in their work as the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians.

In 2014, the City of Boston hired Celina Barrios-Millner as its first ever Immigrant Integration Fellow to develop the city’s welcoming initiatives. Barrios-Millner has incorporated outreach to religious communities and leaders as key stakeholders in a three-year immigrant integration plan. In a recent interview, she said “We are taking the faith community into account in every phase of our planning process, as key leaders, conveners of, and service providers to various immigrant groups in Boston,” and, “We will be inviting a couple of religious leaders to serve on our Advisory Board and hope to engage more through different dialogues and gatherings.” (14)

Other municipal agencies have implemented similar strategies on a scale that ranges from partnering with faith-based organizations on events to longer-term partnerships. Welcoming America’s Deputy Director, Rachel Peric, acknowledges that the involvement of religious institutions has not been a point of focus for the organization in the past, but that they are an important part of welcoming initiatives across the US: “Welcoming is innate to faith communities,” Peric finds, “but the role that faith communities have been playing has been forgotten.” (15) Prior to her role at Welcoming America, Peric worked on adult literacy programs in Montgomery County, Maryland. There, she witnessed faith-based organizations as critical to immigrant support efforts. She says, “What we found in that community was individual efforts springing up in church basements or in local mosques that were focused on helping a particular community.” According to her, “When you are able to connect those communities, providing health services or English classes, together – when it’s coordinated and when you’re able to leverage those resources – it amounts to a lot of assets that you can tap into as a local government.”

While Welcoming America’s approach to integration involves cultivating a network of municipal offices and community organizations across the US, there are also European city-based approaches worth considering. The Council of Europe’s “Intercultural Cities Programme” is one such initiative, which takes a more top-down approach. Unlike the European Council, the Council of Europe is an international, intergovernmental organization representing 47 countries. In 2008, it established the Intercultural Cities Programme. (16)

“It was started as an experiment,” noted Irena Guidikova, Head of the World Forum for Democracy division of the Council of Europe and manager of the Intercultural Cities initiative. (17) In a recent interview, Guidikova explained how the 9/11 attacks in the US and subsequent instances of terrorism in Europe served as a catalyst for the program: “We said we should try and look at other ways of thinking of cities as laboratories for the intercultural policy paradigm.”

Currently, 26 cities, mostly in Western Europe, are involved in the program. In order to join, city councils must approve the initiative by vote and make a small financial contribution to the program. “In some cases, the initiative is led by a civil society organization,” Guidikova added. “But the best model with the fastest progress is when there is a tandem of a civil society organization, which works as a catalyst for the city’s involvement.”

The initiative works with representatives of city councils to develop intercultural policies and advance diversity-focused efforts. Recognizing the critical role that religious identities and institutions play in the work of member cities, the program hosted a seminar in 2014 themed “Faith in Intercultural Cities: Recognising Religions as Part of Local Diversity, and Exploring How They can Contribute to the Diversity Advantage of Cities.” Following the event, the program organizers shared a policy memo with all participants about other programs and research that focus on religion and interfaith engagement in Europe. A second workshop on religious engagement will be held in Spain in 2016.

Both the Welcoming America municipalities initiative and the Intercultural Cities Programme recognize the ways that cities can model effective public-private partnerships and positive collaboration with faith-based organizations and religious leaders on immigrant integration. The strength of the American model is that civil society actors have the ability to provide resources and cultivate a network of municipalities without having to engage in bureaucratic processes of consensus building or being required to sign contracts with those government agencies before they start their work. The strength of the European initiative is the degree of consensus and institutionalization they have built the program upon in partnership with city councils. Both initiatives have recognized that the ideal model is one that involves both government agencies and civil society organizations working in tandem. In early 2016, they also began partnering more closely to cultivate a transatlantic network in order to share good practices across European and US cities.

Sociologist Peter Kivisto notes the prospects of intentional, intercultural policies to stabilize communities when discussing challenges faced by Muslim immigrants in Western Europe. Kivisto states, “The vast majority of Muslims who have migrated from majority Muslim societies to receiving societies in which they are and will continue to be a minority religion have proven willing to adapt to living in pluralist democracies,” he emphasized. “Where multicultural policies and practices have created a climate in which differences are not eliminated, but instead respected, a domesticated Islam is taking root,” which is to say an Islam that has become indigenous to the welcoming community. (18)

If the aforementioned transatlantic network of welcoming cities and receiving communities continues to grow and broaden in scope, it will create a much-needed space for knowledge sharing about these types of policies and practices on religion and integration.

The Way Forward

The social science research mentioned earlier shows that religious identities and institutions are a critical factor in the lives of immigrants. Institutions help immigrants adjust, gain access to the material and spiritual resources they need to be civically engaged, and build a sense of belonging to their new homes. The integration and intercultural initiatives in Europe and the US described here also illustrate that religiously-affiliated organizations continue to serve as a resource not just in providing social services to immigrants and refugees, but also in enhancing their social capital. For these reasons, civil society actors and government agencies may benefit from engaging in projects that involve religious institutions and that acknowledge the religious lives of immigrants explicitly. Out of hundreds of cities in Europe and the US, less than ninety are involved in integration efforts that highlight the importance of religiously-affiliated immigrant and migrant serving organizations and of interreligious engagement. For those that do, there are few standards and guidelines on how best to engage with religious actors in integration work.

Policy assessment tools like the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), a European Union (EU) funded project, support important work to measure the degree to which national policies are effective at immigrant integration with some attention to religious factors. The MIPEX has identified eight government policy areas and 167 policy indicators to determine the extent to which integration policies, outcomes, and effectiveness rank across the EU as well as ten additional countries including the US. Of the eight policy areas, few make reference to religious factors. For example, one indicator within the policy area of Education measures the degree of religious accommodation for holidays, dress codes, and lunch menus in schools. Another place where religion features prominently is within the policy area of Anti-Discrimination. These indicators are concerned with the degree to which laws protect immigrants from racial, ethnic, religious and other types of discrimination. (19) While it is important that this and other indices draw attention to the need for respect and openness regarding religious practice, policymakers need to develop measurement tools that track a myriad of other ways that religion can be positively engaged in integration work.

Scholars Paul Numrich and Fred Kniss discuss municipal integration in their text Sacred Assemblies and Civic Engagement; How Religion Matters for America’s Newest Immigrants. They found in their research that some cities were not completely adept at working with religious communities: “Our sense is that municipal officials and offices may be generally uninformed about the complexities of religious identities in local immigrant communities.” (20)

European cities face similar challenges. In The Failure of Multiculturalism, a biting indictment of multiculturalism, Kenan Malik argues that both multiculturalism and assimilationism take the wrong approach to address diversity challenges. (21) European countries have “enacted either multicultural policies that place communities in constricting boxes or assimilationist ones that distance minorities from the mainstream,” he finds.

It is true that top-down, federal or national level approaches to engaging diversity are limited in their impact of community dynamics on the ground. Establishing a national or municipal interfaith council or beginning city council meetings with invocations and prayers may be beneficial or symbolically uplifting, but these gestures rarely make a difference on issues like education inequity or religious minority marginalization. Instead, cities should engage with religious institutions from across civil society to grow policymakers’ religious literacy and knowledge of diverse faith and values-based communities. They need to cultivate public-private networks, like those in Boston, to allow religious leaders and faith-based service providers to play a more active role in integration efforts. For their part, organizations that develop and implement policy indices should think more broadly about ways to measure religious engagement in immigrant integration. To what extent are religious communities involved in local initiatives that go beyond holiday observances and interfaith dialogue? Are immigrant faith communities and their members represented on community boards, in the local police department and in neighborhood networks? By broadening the way that religious engagement is measured in integration work, we can encourage policymakers to broaden their perspectives on the assets of religious identity and religious institutions as well.

Religion is an important factor in immigrant integration. It is promising that a small group of American and European cities is at the forefront of building good practices on engaging religious communities. Still, with the growing amount of Muslim and other immigrants moving to Europe and the US, it will become increasingly dangerous for cities to maintain their tunnel vision on religion in the immigration and migration debate. 


•     •     • 

About the Author 

Usra Ghazi has worked in the nonprofit and policy sectors on interreligious engagement for over ten years with organizations including Interfaith Youth Core and the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, as well as the Department of Education, the White House, the City of Boston, and the Department of State where she currently serves as a Franklin Fellow with the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. Ghazi holds a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School in Religion and Politics.


Ghazi, Usra. “From Tunnel Vision To Bridge Building: Religion In The Immigration Debate" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 44-55. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and in no way constitute an endorsement, expressed or implied, by the United States Department of State.


The author and editor thank Charles Lockwood and Thomas Huddleston for their dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. Arun Kundnani and Kumar Deepa, “Calls to Suspend Syrian Refugee and Other Recent Anti-Muslim Statements by Government Officials,” Dec. 15, 2015, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/ calls-to-suspend-syrian-refugee-and-other-recent-anti-muslim-statements-by-government-officials/.

2. Anna Sauerbrey, “Will the Burqa Be Banned in Berlin?” The New York Times, July 6, 2015, accessed Oct. 4, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/07/opinion/anna-sauerbrey-will-the-burqa-be-banned-in-berlin.html.

3. Phillip Connor, Immigrant Faith: Patterns of Immigrant Religion in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

4. “A Common Agenda for Integration - Framework for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals in the European Union,” EUR-Lex, Sept. 1, 2005, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52005DC0389.

5. “Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents; A Federal Strategic Action Plan On Immigrant & Refugee Integration,” ed. The White House Taskforce on New Americans, Apr. 2015, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_tf_newamericans_ report_4-14-15_clean.pdf.

6. See: Peter Kivisto, Religion and Immigration: Migrant Faiths in North America and Western Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014); Nancy Foner and Richard Alba, “Immigrant Religion in the US and Western Europe: Bridge or Barrier to Inclusion?” International Migration Review 42, no. 2 (2008): 360–392.

7. Joseph M. Palacios, “Bringing Mexican Immigrants into American Faith-Based Social Justice and Civic Cultures,” in Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants, ed. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 74-90.

8. Michael W. Foley and Dean R. Hoge, Religion and the New Immigrants: How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

9. Peter Kivisto, Religion and Immigration: Migrant Faiths in North America and Western Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

10. Erasmus, “Diverse, Desperate Migrants Have Divided European Christians,” The Economist, Sept. 6, 2015, accessed Oct. 4, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2015/09/migrants-christianity-and-europe.

11. Foley, Religion and the New Immigrants, 22.

12. Stephanie J. Nawyn, “Welcoming the Stranger; Constructing an Interfaith Ethic of Refuge,” Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants, ed. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007), 141-156.

13. Fred Lamar Kniss and Paul David Numrich, Sacred Assemblies and Civic Engagement: How Religion Matters for America’s Newest Immigrants (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

14. Celina Barrios-Millner, Personal Interview on Sept. 29, 2015.

15. Rachel Peric, Personal Interview on Sept. 23, 2015.

16. “Intercultural Cities Programme,” The Council of Europe, accessed Oct. 4, 2015. http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/culture/Cities/about_en.asp.

17. Irena Guidikova, Personal Interview on Sept. 26, 2015.

18. Kivisto, Religion and Immigration, 168.

19. “What is MIPEX?” The Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015, accessed Apr. 19, 2016, http://www.mipex.eu/what-is-mipex.

20. Kniss, Sacred Assemblies and Civic Engagement, 223.

21. Kenan Malik, “The Failure of Multiculturalism,” Foreign Affairs, Apr. 29, 2015, accessed Oct. 4, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2015-03-01/failure-multiculturalism.

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