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Citizens of Heaven: Fear, Faith, and Political Participation of Undocumented Americans


Everyday life for undocumented Americans entails coping with fear, stress, and anxiety related to the threat of deportation and family separation. In recent decades, changes in immigration trends, policy, and policing have created a lived reality for undocumented Americans that have an increasingly high cost and risk of deportation; not only have the chances of deportation grown but so too have the costs of deportation. However, as risks and fears of deportation have risen, so too have political mobilizations of undocumented Americans as undocumented peoples demand protection of DREAMers, an end to deportations, and campaign for comprehensive immigration reform at the nation level and sanctuary status at the state and local level. In recent years immigrant rights mobilizations and political protests have brought undocumented Americans from the shadows to the glaring lights of the American political arena. Through a comparative case study of a Catholic Parish in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, this dissertation explores how undocumented Americans overcome or set aside fear of deportation to participate in American political arenas in one traditional institutional setting – the Catholic Church.

Religious institutions play a fundamental role in the American political system, providing opportunities to participate, motivations and desires to participate, and enhance individual capacity to participate through acquisitions of civic skills (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Through engagement with a Catholic Church, the primary institutional affiliation of Latino and Latino immigrants in the U.S. (Jones-Correa & Leal, 2001), undocumented Americans enhance their means, motives, and opportunities to participate politically. This occurs within a physical and institutional setting that shields individuals from deportation fear, hostile geographies of fear, and negative contexts of reception. The church facilitates political participation through aiding undocumented Americans in setting aside of a legal identity and adopting an identity based on religious faith – becoming a brother or sister in Christ while participating in Church groups, events, and activities. The church may support this identity formation and sense of belonging through social service provision, catering faith-based services to immigrant traditions, and engaging in campaigns in support of immigrant rights and protections. Some church-affiliated groups may also act as de-facto civic organizations, convening meetings with local politicians, participating in community-based activities beyond the realm of faith-based activities, thus providing not only opportunities to participate but the potential of participating with institutional cover and legitimacy provided by the Catholic Church. Through engagement with a church, undocumented Americans can adopt a sense of belonging in urban America while engaging in political activities that further cement their presence in the United States.

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