For Undocumented Immigrants, the Inaccessibility of Symbols of American Civil Religion Further Entrenches Their Separation From Citizens

For Undocumented Immigrants, the Inaccessibility of Symbols of American Civil Religion Further Entrenches Their Separation From Citizens

By Sophia Kaplan '23; Image by Andrew Harnik/Pool photo/Getty Images

All quotations used below are from Migration Encounters records. For the purpose of the interviewee’s continued safety and privacy, names have been omitted from the following blog post.

The holiness of the Pledge of Allegiance, the inviolability of the U.S. flag, the sanctity of the American dream: these are just three symbols of the American civil religion. A framework first proposed by sociologist Robert Bellah in “Civil Religion in America” (1967), American civil religion is a set of institutionalized symbols, rituals, and beliefs founded within U.S. culture that mirrors religious commitments and practices. Cumulatively, these traditions form a quasi-religious state, not united by shared conceptions of God, but by reinforced commitment to common patriotism. 

For most people who grow up in America, civil religion is not an actively performed practice, but a set of normatively socialized orientations and rituals introduced in childhood and fortified in formal education. American civil religion institutes the narrative (drawn from Exodus) that the United States is the promised land and its citizens are the chosen people, elevates the Constitution and Bill of Rights to the status of canonical scripture, ritualizes reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem, and sanctifies the martyrs who came before – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln to name a few. It consecrates the American dream and Manifest Destiny and the flag for which we stand. These common symbols and practices, Bellah argues, build solidarity, provide moral frameworks, and legitimize the institutions of governance upon which the United States is built and creates an in-group and an out-group, those who are American, and those who are not.

For many undocumented immigrants, particularly those that immigrated to the United States during childhood, the framework of American civil religion is a complicated concept. Like citizens, undocumented children are introduced to narratives of civil religion by teachers in the classroom, by stories told in children’s books and on shows on television. They learn to venerate their historic American forefathers, to believe in the universality of constitutionally ordained rights and the accessibility of the American dream. As explained by one undocumented man,

“After that you need to go to history class… You got to learn who is Abraham Lincoln.”

As illustrated by this quotation, there are certain historical figures people growing up in the U.S. “need” to learn about. Knowledge of these symbols of American civil religion is a precursor to becoming a member of the quasi-religious group, and therefore is emphasized throughout education. The undocumented man quoted was indoctrinated into the church of American civil religion through his education despite his growing up undocumented.

As articulated by another,

“Freedom of developing my own world view, not following an ideology that’s been traditional for many years. I shape my own world view, that’s what I learned in the States. That rugged individualism.”

Here, the undocumented speaker voices an underlying facet of American civil religion: the “rugged individualism” normalized through conceptions of starting anew out West, the right to individual beliefs, speech, etc. promised in the First Amendment, and the capacity for individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps inherent to conceptions of the American dream. Despite having been deported, he retains these deeply ingrained conceptions of freedom and individualism due to his upbringing in the United States.

There are important caveats to undocumented immigrant children’s experience with symbols of American civil religion though as they struggle to differentiate between symbols of their birthplace and their new home. One undocumented immigrant described his confusion upon being asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school. He stated,

“Over here in Mexico, you do the pledge to the flag every Monday. And over there [in the United States], you do it every morning. So that was kind of different.”

While this man soon learned the Pledge of Allegiance like all American students, he remains drawn between two places, two cultures. Another undocumented immigrant articulated a similar struggle. He described existing in a state of limbo, undefined by either American symbols and rituals nor Chicano practices:

“I used to do it every day. The Pledge of Allegiance. I even learned the American anthem, but all of a sudden everything started changing… It was difficult for the culture because it got me mixed up with the American culture and Chicano culture. There was a big division there because I had to learn from both.”

In these moments of confusion and limbo, each interviewee’s undocumented status was solidified, their experienced dissociation from American rituals placing them in the out-group category. It is in these moments that undocumented children begin to realize the complications in applying the symbols and promises of American civil religion to their experience in the United States.

But these isolated moments are only the beginning as, as upon reaching adolescence and adulthood, many undocumented immigrants come to a painful realization: that American civil religion is not a framework applicable to their undocumented lives. The realization of the inaccessibility of the American dream serves as a particularly painful reality check, serving as a long-term separating force which finalizes the experienced separations between citizens and non-citizens. This is not to say that the American dream is applicable to all citizens to begin with – for almost each and every citizen of color, the American dream remains a promise unfulfilled – but the experienced unattainability for undocumented immigrants stresses their outgroup status on the basis of citizenship status.

The following story is repeated time and time again, particularly by those who immigrated to the United States at a young age: that they grew up believing they could achieve success (in education, the arts, employment situations, etc.) as promised by American civil religion, but these dreams were crushed by the realization that they were not attainable due to lack of citizenship documentation. One such story was expressed thusly,

“I mean, we all have dreams. You know? And I had an American dream, you could say. You know, I wanted to be a lawyer at some time in my future. By me doing that, of course I had to go through college and all that. So by me knowing that I’m not a United States citizen, I know I couldn’t go to college and my dream was basically crushed. So it was something that kind of crushed me and my family for the fact that I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do.”

Another undocumented man described a parallel experience; he stated,

“And then after a year I realized that, what am I supposed to do? Am I really going to get into CalArts? I don’t have a social, I don’t have an ID, I don’t even have a bank account. I don’t have nothing. What am I supposed to do? And it was kind of hard because I had to give that dream away.”

This story is repeated yet again by another undocumented man, who shares,

“I was trying to study accounting, but, but then again, you know, the money, it got expensive. And then, I tried to apply for like a private school. I wanted to study computers and I actually went to DeVry University to try… But it was too expensive as well. So I didn’t have no social. My mom had a tourist social, but she wasn’t able to get like a grant or a loan from the bank, so I couldn’t proceed with my dreams.”

This narrative of the dreams destroyed is not only heartbreaking but illustrates the inaccessibility of American civil religion to non-citizens. Despite undocumented immigrants being taught that symbols of civil religion are their right because they live here, inclusion in the American church, like all religious institutions, is conditional; instead of certain beliefs or practiced rituals being the determinant of inclusion in the religious group, for Americans, citizenship status is the determiner. So many undocumented immigrants are raised in this country, educated in this country, taught to dream in this country, but are forced to relinquish their visualized futures because the American dream is not for them. Ultimately, for undocumented immigrants, the inaccessibility of symbols of American civil religion further entrenches their separation from citizens and formalizes their out-group status.

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