Case Studies

RLPI Symposia adopt a case study approach to the subject matter at hand.  The RLPI Symposium on Government will present three location-based case studies that engage different ways in which government agencies address immigration and refugee issues in the greater Boston area, Middle Tennessee, and the Arizona-Mexico border.

Each of these areas offers numerous, content-rich dynamics that can provide the foundation for productive conversation and greater reflection on the benefits of religious literacy and means to cultivating it.  While some general themes and questions apply to all three areas and will be discussed throughout the symposium, each area also offers the opportunity to focus on particular questions.   

Questions to consider in all the case studies:

  1. Where do governmental agencies and employees get their information about the religious dynamics of immigrant groups?  How receptive are different government agencies to religious literacy education?  How can the academy help provide salient and accessible information for governmental workers? 
  2. How dependent are government employees on journalism for their information about religion and the religious dynamics of the communities to which they are accountable?
  3. How do government employees understand the relationship between (secular) government agencies and faith-based organizations and NGOs?  This is relevant for refugee resettlement as well as community partnerships.
  4. How do the religious assumptions (and personal experiences?) of government employees affect they way they understand and address immigration issues?  To what extent do agencies cultivate a basic grasp of situatedness?  Should they?
  5. How do government agencies that work with immigrants understand and address conflicts between immigrant groups or immigrant groups and receiving communities that have roots in religious conflict?  Muslim/Jewish?  Buddhist/Muslim? Protestant/Catholic? Christian/Muslim?

We recommend reading the Religious Literacy Project's Method in addition to the individual case studies in preparation for the symposium. 

Greater Boston Area

Boston has always been a city of immigrants. Some, like the English Puritans who founded the city in 1630, came seeking economic opportunity and freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit. European slave traders brought others by force, including thousands of Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries. Still others came fleeing famine, war, and political turmoil in their homelands, from Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews in the 19th century to Central American and South Asian immigrants in the 20th century. Each new group has brought its own distinctive culture, including religious beliefs and practices. And with each new group, the larger Boston community has had to reckon with its own assumptions about who we are as a city.

Despite its immigrant history, Boston has not always been hospitable to newcomers. Rather than seeing the shared experience of being immigrants as something that links different communities over time, more established immigrant groups often resisted making space for new arrivals.  In many cases religious identity fueled tensions between established groups and newer arrivals.  Nativist Protestants burned the Irish-Catholic Ursuline convent in Charlestown in 1834, and a group of young Harvard educated Boston Brahmins, anxious about their diminishing power at the end of the 19th century, established the Immigration Restriction League, which successfully lobbied for the restrictive Federal Immigration Act of 1917.  Well into the 20th century Boston was a hot bed of anti-Semitism, much of it stoked by the fiery radio tirades of Father Charles E. Coughlin, who found one of his single largest audiences among Boston’s Irish Catholics. In the 1980s, white blue-collar workers carried out a series of violent attacks on Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, including an arson attack on a Cambodian tenement building in Revere. Read more.

Download case study as a PDF.

Middle Tennessee

In March 2017, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program on the grounds that the program violated the Tenth Amendment and unduly burdened Tennessee taxpayers. The move came just before President Trump issued his second executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries, at a time when the national conversation about refugees was dominated by anxieties about terrorism. Though the lawsuit used constitutional and economic arguments to make its case against refugee resettlement, the backdrop was the Islamophobia that had been rising in the nation since 2001 and reached a new pitch during the 2016 presidential election. Even so, some local and state legislators in Tennessee, as well as activists working on behalf of immigrants and refugees in the state, spoke out strongly against both the travel ban and the refugee resettlement lawsuit. In Tennessee as in the rest of the nation, people’s positions on the issues spanned a wide range, from open arms to open hostility.

Refugees have not always been met with this level of controversy in Tennessee. While they have never been universally welcomed in Tennessee or any other state, refugees have been resettling in Tennessee in significant numbers since at least the 1970s, when Kurdish refugees fleeing war with Iraq began settling in Nashville. Other waves of refugees have come to Tennessee from Somalia and, more recently, Syria. Large numbers of immigrants from Mexico have also added to the diversity of Tennessee’s population, with the Hispanic population of the state increasing by 134% between 2000 and 2010 alone. Today, the immigrant population of Tennessee, including refugees, is 5%, and another 4% were born in the United States but have at least one immigrant parent. Though newcomers have consistently experienced friction in their new communities, that friction has been alleviated in part by the work of faith-based organizations working to acculturate them to the United States. As expressions of hostility toward immigrants, refugees, and particularly Muslim refugees, has grown louder in the last decade, so too has the advocacy of religious organizations and community partners speaking in their defense. Read more.

Download case study as a PDF.

Arizona-Mexico Border

Throughout US history Americans have imagined the border in many different ways, from impermeable lines of defense to harmless lines on a map. For some, borders are a place of creative diversity; for others, they are a site of profound danger. At one time “the border” conjured up images of Ellis Island and the port cities of the east coast.  At another, as new waves of immigrants were first arriving from Asia, popular imagination associated the border with the west coast. Today, the border can be anywhere there is an international airport. But in recent years, most Americans have come to think of “the border” as the southwestern border between the United States and Mexico. Over the past few decades, that border has become the site of devastating violence and loss of life, a political lightning rod, and a symbol of deep cultural divisions in American culture around not only immigration but American identity and governance writ large.

Though often unacknowledged, religion is deeply embedded in how Americans imagine the border.   Given the pervasiveness of Christianity in American culture, distinctive forms of American Christianity have especially shaped Americans’ attitudes to and at the border. On the one hand, certain strands of American Christianity emphasize purity and authority, contributing to anxiety about the permeability of the border and the potential for dangerous or disorderly incursions. On the other hand, some forms of American Christianity emphasize radical hospitality and portray Jesus as favoring universal humanity, not national identity, leading to a politics of more permeable, if not radically open, borders. Other religions play active parts as well, from the collaboration of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and nonbelievers in humanitarian efforts and the Sanctuary movement, to the long standing presence of Native peoples whose indigenous traditions sometimes merge with and sometimes stand in rebuke to the broader border culture. Understanding these different ways of imagining the border—and how religions foster them—is essential to understanding the current crisis at the border. Read more.

Download the case study as a PDF.