When initially formulating this project and outlining a research protocol, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d never done a formal psychological research study before, let alone any research project that extended beyond my laptop or my high school community. All I knew was that in order for this research project to be a success, I would need to reach a generally inaccessible, hard-to-pin down population: young adult immigrants, some of whom would be undocumented. I was also attempting to conduct a quantitative study, which would be particularly difficult: legal status is a sensitive topic, and respondents can face great danger if their information is disclosed. As a result, little empirical research has been done on undocumented immigrants, with the greatest focus on small-scale, qualitative research in which there is a great degree of trust between the respondent and researcher.
I realized the extent of the dearth of information on undocumented and DACAmented youth while doing a paper on the relationship between legal status and identity formation during first semester of my freshman year. It was exceedingly difficult for me to find quantitative studies with large population sizes, which are considered the gold standard for scientific research and are the backbone of any persuasive argument on immigration. My paper ultimately centered on three innovatory studies, which used various data collection methods: one utilized data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which is run by the US Census Bureau; another was a four and a half year study that, although qualitative and interview-focused, managed to get in contact with nearly 250 undocumented youth and as a result could make somewhat broader generalizations; and the final study was a telephone survey that gathered numbers from a pool of individuals that had attended DACA workshops in the Los Angeles area.
Unfortunately, my project does not have access to the same avenues that these other studies did: the data that I wish to assess is not measured by the SIPP program, I do not have a team of researchers nor a four and a half year period to collect data, and my study consists of a 30 minute survey that would take far too long to complete over the phone. When starting this study, I knew I’d have to figure out how to get in contact with undocumented individuals on my own. My first instinct was to work with immigration law firms and nonprofits that provide free legal counsel; I’d worked as a legal assistant in an immigration law firm before, and I knew that a lot of individuals of varying legal statuses came through the office. I started contacting law firms as early as February, and I received a lot of “no’s” and a small handful of “yes’s”. I’d get one yes for approximately every 15 or so firms I contacted, with at least four or five firms directly telling me that they were afraid of putting their clients in danger: they didn’t know if they could trust me. Ultimately, I received the opportunity to work with 9 law firms and nonprofits in total, but as the study went on fewer clients were filling out surveys than I had anticipated. I had less than 30 surveys, and it had already been a month. I would need to reconsider how to get in contact with individuals in my target population.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine suggested that I expand my definition of nonprofits to include churches. I started contacting churches in the Atlanta area, and I specifically focused on Hispanic communities because my local county as well as several neighboring counties have significantly more Latin American immigrants than they do any other type of immigrant, and immigrants from Latin America are often Christian and tend to skew Catholic (though an increasing number are Protestant). Additionally, the psychological measure that I am using is somewhat culture specific and has only been verified on white, African American, and Latino youth, so the questions asked in the survey would not necessarily apply to Asians and Africans. Contacting churches soon proved to be a good idea. I got a great response; a number of Hispanic priests and pastors replied to me, saying that they were willing to help me out. It was a marked improvement from what I had been doing before. The number of people attending these churches is much larger than those who go to the law offices I’d been working with, and I now had the opportunity to speak to individuals directly and make my case in person. I also had more potential respondents: churches are important centers for Latin American immigrants. One person I had interviewed noted that her undocumented parents are often sequestered to their home or workplace, and they only went out to places like the grocery store when they absolutely had to. Churches are one of the few places where undocumented immigrants will or can coalesce; they are very much considered a safe space.
Beyond religion, why are churches so important to the immigrant cause? We hear much about sanctuary cities in the United States, but churches have always been the original version. The Church World Service estimates that about 800 churches nationwide have opened their doors to people at risk of deportation and are willing to provide them refuge. A countless number of articles have documented churches that have housed immigrants facing deportation. However, even if one is not seeking sanctuary, churches provide protection in a broader sense by remaining one of the few places were undocumented immigrants may feel at ease. ICE and Customs and Borders Protection usually don’t touch churches; they are considered “sensitive locations,” and guidelines state, “Enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided.” Many churches––including several in the Atlanta area and some of whom I have contacted––also provide support more generally by coordinating child care and offering citizenship workshops and classes on legal rights run by local immigration lawyers. Churches are where undocumented individuals go––not only for religious reasons but also for the help they provide. They serve as community centers, and non-Latino immigrant activists mustn’t overlook them.
When we view religiosity as a conservative trend yet see efforts to help the undocumented as a leftist issue––especially in recent weeks with the rise of the “Abolish ICE” movement, the “Families Belong Together March” and the outpour of funds to organizations like RAICES in the wake of the family separation debacle––we leave out the important work of churches and religious nonprofits that are often the first point of contact for people who are undocumented. Though work by the ACLU and RAICES is important, one must remember that local churches are some of the first places where community support is needed to help undocumented immigrants. I overlooked churches when attempting to reach immigrants, and I’ve realized that a larger push for immigration reform shouldn’t overlook them, too.