Seeing like a Church, Seeing like a State: Church-State Relation in Religious Asylum Adjudications

Jaeeun Kim, University of Michigan

This paper examines various challenges that asylum claims-making on religious grounds pose to asylum adjudications in the U.S. and beyond. I draw on case law, asylum officer training modules, advocacy publications, and my own ethnographic research in Protestant congregations in the U.S. that help with religious asylum claims-making. While credibility is a common issue in all asylum adjudications, it is especially fraught in religious asylum cases. That religious freedom includes the freedom to change one’s own religion enables migrants to cite conversion that took place after leaving their origin countries as prima facie evidence of “well-founded fear of persecution.” This contributes to the greater suspicion of the sincerity of their newly adopted religious identities. Moreover, the essentially “orthodoxy-establishing” nature of the credibility test generates constitutional issues involving state-church relation. To avoid conducting “religious trials” themselves, asylum officers and immigration judges tend to delegate part of their verification authority to religious organizations in the countries of asylum. The certificates of membership and baptism issued by these organizations, or the recommendation letters or personal testimonies in court offered by pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams, are often featured centrally in the asylum adjudication process. The relationship between state and church (broadly conceived) in this context, however, is ridden with tensions. Asylum adjudicators may suspect bad faith on the part of religious organizations, whether it is the zeal for proselytization, the unjust attempt at boundary policing, or the pursuit of various instrumental gains, financial or not. Religious organizations, for their part, may take offense at such suspicion, considering it an infringement of their own jurisdiction. In the U.S. in particular, the question of church-state relation is complicated further by the active involvement of faith-based organizations, especially evangelical Christians, in centering religious persecution in asylum adjudications and endorsing the theopolitical discourse about America’s manifest destiny.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 223. State-Religion Relations at the Border