Seeking Asylum, Finding God: Legal Consciousness, Future-Making, and Migrants’ Self-Transformation

Jaeeun Kim, University of Michigan

The literature on migrant religious conversion has paid insufficient attention to the role that legal regimes play in shaping migrants’ religious identities. If anything, religion has been treated as a respite from the law. But what if religion opens for unauthorized migrants a path to fuller inclusion into their state of residence? Religion-based asylum claims bring to the fore the hitherto underexplored relationship between immigration law and religious conversion. If a certain religious identity can facilitate migrants’ access to a legal status, can this opportunity induce them to change religious identifications? Can this newly adopted religious persona stick despite its putatively opportunistic origin? If so, what aspects of the legal process may contribute to this self-transformation? I explore these questions through ethnographic research on the legalization strategies and religious conversion patterns of ethnic Korean migrants from China to the U.S. I approach the belated religious conversion of Korean Chinese asylum-seekers as a case of what Menjívar and Lakhani call the “transformative effects of immigration law”: “enduring alterations in behaviors, practices, and self-image that immigrants’ evolving knowledge of and participation in the legalization process facilitate.” Their argument is useful, yet not without limitations: the neglect of the role of non-state intermediaries; the failure to analyze multilayered temporalities that shape migrants’ aspirational horizon; and its weak action-theoretical foundation. I make the complex temporal ordering of the asylum process the center of my analysis. Drawing on scholarship on migration and time on the one hand, and projectivity, aspiration, and future-making on the other, I argue that the asylum institution, commercial migration brokers, and the evangelical church co-produce asylum-seekers’ religious conversion, by nudging them into the protracted, yet protected, legal limbo, prescribing how to wait, what to wait for, and how to make future, and offering institutional, societal, and cultural resources for doing so.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 83. Migrant, Ethnic and National Identity Formation and Knowledge Production