Serving christ in the borderlands faith workers respond to border violence

Cecilia Menjívar

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


Religious congregations have been involved in providing multiple forms of assistance to immigrants for a long time. Not only are immigrants already familiar with the churches they come to join, but the churches and their congregations are perhaps some of the most supportive and welcoming institutions, particularly for immigrants who face extremely difficult circumstances. Many churches and congregations offer newcomers material and financial support, as well as legal counsel, access to medical care and housing, a lobby for less stringent immigration policies, and a welcome from the nonimmigrant coreligionists. To reach out to newcomers, churches conduct services in the languages of the immigrants and incorporate popular religious practices that are culturally essential for immigrants. Immigrants also create new religious spaces, new churches and congregations, and bring new expressions of the faith to long-established churches. Thus, in efforts to become relevant to newcomers, established churches and their congregations do not remain static. Responding to the needs of the new flock, churches themselves are changing and new ones are being created, so that in the interaction between new immigrants and the receiving society's religious spaces transformation occurs both ways (Menjívar 2003). In previous work I have examined the spaces that churches provide for immigrants to remain connected to their communities of origin (Menjivar 1999), the kinds of assistance that the church and congregations provide and what it means for the immigrants (Menjivar 1999, 2001, 2003), and national and ethnic differences in the meaning immigrants attach to such assistance (Menjivar 2001). In general, this work has focused on the immigrants and the central place of religious congregations in their settlement. The focus of this piece is not the place of the congregations' assistance from the point of view of the immigrants, but on how faith workers respond to the conditions immigrants face.1 Specifically, I focus on how they respond to border violence, drawing on social justice teachings as well as on the link between their work, scripture, and definitions of the context within which they respond. In doing so, I engage discussions at the intersection of religion, politics, and immigration law. A few definitions are in order before I embark on this discussion. From the angle I approach this examination, the "border" is not only the physical border, though it is central in this analysis, but also the legal and social borders derived from exclusionary immigration policies. Gloria Anzaldua (1987, 25) referred to the Mexico-US border as an "open wound where the Third world grates against the first and bleeds.. the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country- A border culture." However, Anzaldua's image of the borderlands also has been used to refer to other, metaphorical borders, those created by systems of stratification such as class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Thus, I will also use this concept to refer to the borders created by exclusionary immigration policies and militarized border strategies that marginalize immigrants socially, economically, and politically. From the standpoint of the faith workers, these borders represent unique sites to express their socially and politically engaged interpretations of scripture as challenges to be overcome and transcended. I must also explain my use of the concept of violence. In this work, violence is a multifaceted concept that does not refer solely to the willful infliction of physical pain or injury or even mental anguish, but also to the deprivation of services to maintain mental and physical health and to the warlike atmosphere created by militarized border policies. Thus, from this angle, faith workers respond to violence that takes place at the physical border but also in other borders; that is, to the kind of violence produced by broader structural forces that generate and exacerbate other forms of violence. The workers' responses are fundamentally linked to social justice teachings; they view their actions as advancing social change with a focus on the marginalized and excluded. The responses I examine are those of faith workers of different denominations who live and work in Tucson, Arizona. This context provides an important site to examine how faith workers galvanize a moral voice to respond to immigration and border policies. Arizona has become the focus of numerous initiatives that endanger the lives of immigrants in multiple ways. First, the implementation of border policies that push undocumented border crossing to more rugged and dangerous terrain has directly contributed to an increase in human rights abuses and deaths (Eschbach, Hagan, and Rodriguez 1999). The militarization of the border resulting from the Border Patrol's different operations in California and Texas, Operation Safeguard in Nogales, Arizona, in 1994, as well as the more recent escalation after 2001, has created a climate where direct physical violence endangers the lives of immigrants. As a result of border militarization, the change in migration patterns (e.g., alternate border-crossing points, where almost half the deaths since 1995 have occurred) has made this region a type of ground zero (Massey 2003). The Border Patrol's militarized response to a border perceived out of control has unleashed actions that threaten the physical wellbeing of immigrants and nonimmigrants alike, and brutalize the public in general (Kil and Menjívar, forthcoming). Second, in addition to anti-immigrant legislation at the federal level (e.g., the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996), Arizona recently implemented a new law that severely restricts immigrants' access to social services and further criminalizes their presence. Originally called Proposition 200, Protect Arizona Now, or Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, this initiative was approved by voters on November 2, 2004, and enacted into law on December 22,2004.2 This new law is supposed to help stem the flow of undocumented immigration to Arizona; instead, it makes even more vulnerable the immigrants who are already living in the state. Also, at the time of this writing there are several bills pending in the Arizona legislature that would place even more restrictions on what undocumented immigrants can do. These laws threaten the existence of immigrants, as they push them further away from society's benefits into more marginalized and clandestine lives. Both militarized border initiatives and new immigration laws make up an aggressive system of exclusion and marginalization, expressed in multiple forms of violence against immigrants at the physical border and in the environment in which they now live. It is this multifaceted violence to which faith workers respond. Thus, examined from this angle, violence is not the result of individuals' choices alone, but, more important, it is the product of inequalities institutionalized in legal systems and justified through a host of frameworks, such as ideology and history (Bourgois 2001). This multifaceted concept of violence captures the consequences of militarized border policies and of exclusionary immigration laws that provide a context within which faith workers carry out their mission. I examine how faith workers interpret this context and how, from a stand that relates scripture and biblical teachings to the conditions immigrants face, they respond by advocating a clear political stance. I focus on the work of two interdenominational organizations with roots in the Sanctuary movement that operate in Tucson. There are many contemporary instances in which religion is moving beyond the confines of worship, spirituality, and ritual "to challenge and inform public morality" (Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004), which Casanova (1994) has referred to as the "deprivatization of religion" or the "set of beliefs that link theology to public affairs," and that Guth and his colleagues (1997) define as social theology. In the cases I examine here, the work that faith workers carry out is clearly informed by these frameworks. According to Robin Hoover, the director of one of the organizations on which I focus, "Theology is the source of motivation for many . . and what is more important than theology is social theology, that is, the connection between theology and matters of public policy" (Hoover 2004). In some instances, faith workers also make explicit the links between their work and central tenets of liberation theology, which is yet another way by which Latin-American religious traditions infuse change in U.S. churches and congregations' worldviews.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationReligion and Social Justice for Immigrants
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780813558257
ISBN (Print)9780813539089
StatePublished - Jan 1 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Serving christ in the borderlands faith workers respond to border violence'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this