Reframing Immigration through Religious Advocacy: Rhetoric, Cosmopolitanism, and the Divine. 2020. Penn State U, PhD dissertation.
In the United States, nativist rhetoric is propelling increasingly violent attacks on immigrants and other minority populations. Conversely, discourse taking a more cosmopolitan approach—positing border-transcending obligations to all humanity, unlimited by national or ethnic group—struggles to elicit a comparably passionate following, as I explain in the introduction (chapter one). Perhaps cosmopolitan rhetoric can gain persuasive power by joining forces with religion. In the realm of faith-based immigration advocacy, cosmopolitan arguments leverage appeals to divine, rather than merely manmade, imperatives toward love and fellowship. For many potential audiences in this country, the divine plays a potent role in their lives, as over 75% of Americans belong to a religion—a statistic that suggests the influence of religious rhetoric. What resources can religious rhetoric provide to pro-immigrant arguments? By responding to this question, my project addresses a gap in studies of immigration rhetoric, which have hitherto overlooked the border-crossing potential of religious advocacy. The project also addresses a gap in studies of religious rhetoric, which have predominantly focused on Protestant Christianity, by drawing attention to the contributions of rhetors adhering to other religions.
Every world religion offers some cosmopolitan principles, and many also feature sacred stories of migration, as chapter two demonstrates. To elucidate how these elements invigorate arguments for hospitality toward immigrants, I analyze the rhetoric of Bahá’í, Catholic, and Islamic advocacy organizations through the lens of religious cosmopolitanism (a theory that chapter two elucidates). In each organization’s advocacy, I find a model for reframing immigration rhetoric. In chapter three, I demonstrate how the Tahirih Justice Center uses the Bahá’í principle of nonpartisanship to enlist support across the aisles for its work on behalf of immigrant women. In chapter four, I survey the Kino Border Initiative’s rhetoric of journeying, which draws from Catholic traditions to spiritualize undocumented migration. Chapter five presents Hijabis of New York, a social media campaign that claims public space for a much-maligned immigrant group, U.S. Muslim women.
All three of these organizations mobilize religious tenets that mandate universal justice and compassion. Through their arguments for border-transcending policies and dispositions, these organizations reframe the commonplaces of immigration, replacing the xenophobia that dominates discourse today with recognition of migrants’ humanity and spirituality. This dissertation’s discovery of innovative strategies in cosmopolitan rhetoric has several implications for research and teaching, as I point out in the conclusion (chapter six). In the arena of rhetorical research, my project shows that religion can contribute to arguments that we should welcome them—or, more radically, that there is no them, just a global us. It also implies the need for much more research in cosmopolitan theory even—and especially—in the face of rising xenophobia. The project also offers some practical takeaways for pedagogy, recommending anti-nativist teaching strategies. Overall, by bringing to light advocacy rhetorics that refuse to operate on nativism’s terms, it offers the reader hope for humane responses to those who have come across borders.
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