Private Deputies or Migrant Advocates? Faith-Based Actors in Religion-Based Asylum Claims

Jaeeun Kim, University of Michigan

Scholars have long noted how a particular theology and a general commitment to social justice motivate faith-based actors to get involved in unauthorized migrants’ legalization efforts, often in defiance of the state. This article sheds new light on the critical role of faith-based actors, not in the realm of social movements, but in bureaucratic and judicial settings, where the merit of religion-based asylum claims is adjudicated through the “credible membership test”: the religious asylum applicant is required to establish their religious identity with documentary evidence, adequate performance, and witness testimonies. This verification regime shapes the distinctive relationship that religious organizations come to have with the gatekeeping state and unauthorized migrants. Under certain circumstances, religious actors, also interested in distinguishing the genuinely faithful from impostors, may choose to function as private deputies for the gatekeeping state rather than as advocates for unauthorized migrants. Under other circumstances, religious actors may assist in asylum-seekers while suspending the question of the sincerity of their alleged faith and the “truth” of their asylum claims. Drawing on ethnographic research among Korean Chinese asylum seekers in the U.S., the article examines how and why some Korean immigrant evangelical churches become an ambivalent and reluctant aide to coethnic asylum-seekers. I show how religious organizations that function more like “people-changing” than “people-processing organizations” come to focus on making the faithful rather than on screening them, making their clients’ less than sincere religious persona at least retrospectively “genuine.” I conclude by situating faith-based actors along with other types of for-profit and nonprofit intermediaries partaking in migration governance, and discussing how my findings problematize the existing scholarship on migration brokerage that often relies on familiar antinomies, such as profit versus solidarity/altruism and market versus state.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 235. Immigration, Race, and State Gatekeepers