Study Shows the Key Role Religion Plays in American Immigration Politics

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Dr. Ryan Burge is a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He teaches in a variety of areas, including American institutions, public administration, and international relations. His research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior, especially in the American context.


This should come as no shock, but immigration is President Trump’s signature issue. He campaigned on building a wall that Mexico would pay for. ICE enforcement has ramped up dramatically with the number of daily immigrants arrested up nearly 50% since he took office.

Nearly half a million immigrants in the United States under the temporary protective status program have had their legal protections ended by the Trump administration. Additionally, under Trump directives, the number of visas issued to individuals wanting to come to this country legally was down approximately 13% in 2018. Not to mention that the status of DACA recipients is still very much uncertain.

Using this national debate as a backdrop, it seems helpful to ask some basic questions: Are certain religious groups going to be hurt disproportionately by these immigration policies? What do immigrants who come to the United States look like? What are their racial backgrounds? What are their religious traditions?

The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election study asked all 64,600 respondents: “Which of these statements best describes you?” and were given the following options:

  1. Immigrant Citizen
  2. Immigrant non-citizen
  3. First Generation
  4. Second Generation
  5. Third Generation

The answers to this question paint a fascinating picture of the American population. For instance, nearly 3 in 10 respondents indicated that their family has been in the country for two generations or less. Said another way, 30% of Americans indicate that their great grandparents did not live in the United States.

How does that break down by religious tradition? The above graph displays the differences graphically. Note that Black Protestants, Evangelicals, and Mainline Protestants all have below average numbers of recent immigrants.

For instance, over 3 in 4 evangelicals say that they are at least the third generation of their family to be American citizens. On other hand, nearly three quarters of Jewish people immigrated to the United States in the last two generations. Note that the group with the highest percentage of immigrants is those of “other faith.” This category contains those who affiliate with faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam.

It’s clear that there are tremendous differences in the percentages of immigrants from each of the religious traditions, but are there differences in the composition of these immigrant groups? The CCES does not ask respondents what country they have immigrated from, but it does ask what race each individual identifies with, which can serve as a (imperfect) proxy for region of origin.

Each square of the waffle chart below represents one percent of those who identified as an immigrant on the survey. It becomes readily apparent that there are tremendous differences in the racial composition of these religious groups.

For immigrant evangelicals, about four in ten identified as white, while three in ten identified as black. 20 percent said that they were Hispanic and ten percent said that they were Asian. Of all the groups analyzed, evangelicals indicated the highest percentage of black immigrants. While it is not possible to know for certain, this could be due to a great number of African Pentecostals coming to the United States.

The racial composition of Catholic immigrants looks much different. Most notably, there are much lower levels of black immigrants but a dramatic increase in the number of Hispanic immigrants coming to the United States.

It seems likely that many of these immigrants came to the United States from countries in Central and South America where Catholicism dominates the religious landscape.

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Source: Christianity Today