Project of Fairfield University's Center for Faith and Public Life aims to transform the national debate on immigration with funding from Carnegie Corporation


A new Fairfield University initiative entitled, "Strangers as Neighbors: Religious Language and the Response to Immigrants in the U.S.," aims to bring systematic analysis of historical contexts, concepts, actions, and ideas to bear on the issue of immigrant integration in the United States. The project's goal is to serve as a means of understanding how religious language does and can translate into the political discourse, ultimately contributing to transformation of the currently polarized and highly partisan debate on this issue.

It is a project of Fairfield University's Center for Faith and Public Life, which recently received a planning grant of $50,000 from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Central to "Strangers as Neighbors" is the goal of reframing the language of the immigration debate by involving a variety of leaders of different faiths, because organizers believe a faith-based perspective will provide an alternative viewpoint on this contentious issue that may move dialogue in a new direction. The kick-off meeting will be held in November in Washington, D.C. and will convene the leadership team associated with this initiative. One of the first questions to be discussed will be: 'How can faith groups, acting in concert, reframe the language of the national debate on immigration?' Those invited to the Washington, D.C. program include Jewish, Islamic, and Christian leaders, as well as a broad coalition of scholars and public policy leaders. A series of workshops will take place on the Fairfield University campus in Spring, 2009 to explore issues such as Language and Political Transformation; Religious Language and the Public Square; Politics of Migration and the Faith Communities.

Father Richard Ryscavage, S.J., co-director of this grant, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life, is a nationally known expert on migration and refugees. He said that the need for this initiative is now more important than ever, "because the coarse and polarizing national debate over immigration in the U.S. has reached an impasse." "The great traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have contemporary perspectives on immigration that balance the responsibility for national security with a deep concern for the development of every human person under God."

Jocelyn Boryczka, Ph. D., co-director of this grant, assistant professor of Politics, and director of Peace & Justice Studies, further commented that "this project goes beyond the politics of the day to consider how faith communities and their engagement with immigration deeply shape American political discourse which can offer a powerful means for determining how to move forward as a nation in the future."

Fr. Ryscavage and Dr. Boryczka will work collaboratively on the project with other members of the University's faculty. The grant aims to address the reality that with a new administration in the White House and a lack of political consensus across the country, it will be several years before another approach to immigration law and policy can emerge. Millions of immigrants, meanwhile, unable or unwilling to return to their home countries will fail to integrate into American civic life and hide deeper in the shadows of society.

Over the next few years one practical avenue for uncovering a fresh and more balanced perspective may lie with the religious communities in the country. The key is for the faith communities to agree on some common language for speaking about migration, then to educate their believers in that common language, and together to enter the public national dialogue as a dynamic coalition with the aim of ending the impasse on changing immigration law and policy.

In line with Carnegie Corporation's goals, the project offers a way to increase the  engagement of religious groups in the migration and integration debate. Its long term goal envisions a more welcoming society that better manages the integration of immigrants into the U.S. - but to do this, this project recognizes the need for a change in the language framing the debate, the kind of change that Carnegie has seen necessary in other grantmaking that stresses media and communications strategies, public education, and the need for better discourse on this important and complex human rights issue.

The Center has already sponsored an initiative to create a network of faculty from 22 Jesuit universities and institutes in the U.S., Central America, Mexico and Canada who are teaching or studying migration. Fairfield University has created and hosts a website for this network that will be based in the Center. Visit http://jesuitmigration.fairfield.edu.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 23, 2008

Vol. 42, No. 102