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Reinstating the “Nation of Immigrants” Requires More Than a New Administration

The past few months have seen an onslaught of anti-immigration policy motions by President Trump to top off four years of a nationalist agenda. Trump’s campaign ran on a promise of increased restrictions on foreigners entering the United States, but what he delivered went beyond this promise to instead reshape the United States into an isolationist nation.

Last month, U.S. immigrants celebrated a brief but major win when the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects 700,000 minors from deportation. President Trump originally threatened to end DACA just months into his presidency but attempts were blocked by lower courts. In June, the Supreme Court officially ruled to uphold the program.

Now, Trump is targeting DACA yet again with proposed restrictions outlined in a memo from The Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under these restrictions, immigrants who previously held protections would only be allowed to renew their status for one year, rather than the previous two and first-time applicants to the program would be rejected. The new regulations are not guaranteed to pass and will likely face legal challenges.

Regardless of the outcome, Trump’s continued efforts to create stricter regulations on immigration portrays the United States as a country closed to foreigners, a reputation that contradicts its previous status as a proud nation of immigrants. However, anti-immigration views existed well before Trump’s attempts at building a wall, and are perpetuated by more than just Trumpism and its “America First” ideology.

The discussions around immigration are based in dangerous rhetoric where both sides look at international migrants through an economic rather than a human lens, weighing potential benefits against each immigrant’s estimated cost. Pro-immigration arguments center on what the United States stands to gain from migrants and immigrant labor and dehumanizes foreigners in the process. For example, a supporter of the lawsuit brought by Harvard and MIT against the attempted ban on foreign students by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DHS stated, “We all recognize the value that international students bring to our campuses…” Additional articles calling for the protection of immigration programs argue the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs as President Trump’s ban is sending jobs, innovation, investment, and economic growth abroad. These views promote protections for immigrants, but they also perpetuate the idea of migrants as mere data points whose entry to the United States is contingent on their ability to contribute to the its economy.

Knowing the effects foreign nationals have on the country is important to understanding the need for immigration programs, but relying solely on this logic is dangerous. If entry to the United States is directly linked to what Americans stand to gain, what happens when the value placed on immigrant lives no longer outweighs the perceived cost?

Hundreds of children in immigration detention centers were separated from their families based solely on minor immigration violations. Families reentering the US without authorization and unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation were deemed sufficient justification for authorities to separate them. Advocating for migrants on the basis of immigration as good “for business” allows authorities to develop merit based immigration practices, and evaluate applications based on arbitrary measures.

The path to citizenship should not be dependent on a person’s ability to contribute to America’s economic prosperity. The problem with basing a pro-immigration argument on statistical benefits is that these numbers are often countered with misrepresented data that claims immigrants put a financial strain on Americans. Additionally, the ongoing pandemic presents anti-immigration advocates with the opportunity to argue for the prioritization of American recovery. A recent White House briefing stated an “overwhelming majority of Americans support pausing immigration as we recover as a Nation from the coronavirus pandemic.” The same statement claimed that immigration bans will restore the American economy by “protect[ing] the wages of American workers and ensur[ing] that foreign labor…does not undercut the United States labor market.”

While President Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency have focused on increased restrictions to immigration programs, a change in administration does not guarantee improvement. Past administrations have seen similar attempts at ethnocleansing. The Clinton administration backed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, one of the most punitive immigration laws recorded in US history. Under the Obama-Biden administration, a record number of almost three million people were deported.

If elected, former Vice president Joe Biden is promising to increase the annual cap on admitted refugees from President Trump’s allotted 18,000 to 125,000, even surpassing President Obama’s 100,000. He plans to double the number of immigration judges and, increase staff members and interpreters to tackle the immigration court backlog. Additionally, he is calling for an end to the use of for-profit detention centers. Is this sufficient to reverse the damage done by past administrations?

It will take a drastic reconstruction of not only the American immigration system, but the entire discussion that surrounds it to transition the country back to a sanctuary for immigrants. Once a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has been redefining itself as a nationalist country with closed borders. To reverse the damage done to the country’s reputation requires major reforms to the entire system, but begins with a shift in immigration dialogue. 

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Camila Bailey

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