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“The Real America”: immigration and American identity

A new, in both tone and aspirations, presidential administration has taken office in the United States, and the prospect for significant change in the approach to immigration, one of the hot button issues advanced by President Donald Trump, is present at its inception. No issue inflamed Trump’s base more than illegal immigration and the apparent indifference of immigration advocates to the law-breaking it represented for them. The advocates for undocumented residents have argued that a lack of visas aside, immigrants work, pay taxes, and often own property, so give them legal status, and let them and the nation move on. Under President Barack Obama, advocacy on behalf of the Dreamers, those residents illegally brought to the United States as children by undocumented parents, made the issue yet more complicated. American life is the only one these individuals know, would they be put at risk of being forced to return to countries they, unlike their parents, have never known? The deep, abiding polarization of public opinion on these questions and other immigration issues has been reflected in Congress. In the vacuum, Trump governed by presidential decrees and he governed harshly but now the Democrats control Congress and the presidency. With that power, Biden got to work immediately on immigration policy, and he focused among his most attention-grabbing recommendations on a general amnesty and path to citizenship (and an expedited path for Dreamers) for the approximately 11 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country.

Biden is a combination of qualities we have seen before in successful American political leaders and over many decades in politics he has revealed himself to be a decent, sincere, and plain-spoken man. He is a tough-minded pragmatist and a skilled compromiser—right up to the moment you challenge him—then you see his firm resolve and how far he will go to defend what he believes is right. One of the expressive symbols of Biden’s public discourse is the repeated reference to “the real America,” which mirrors his own aspirations: to be big-hearted, open, and generous.

“How marginal can a phenomenon be that is represented, in one guise or another, repeatedly throughout American history?”

The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency bulk especially large as a challenge to Biden’s “real America.” Indeed, to embrace the mindset that the liberal vision advances, one has to explain away a great deal that has always contradicted it. One of the standard discursive strategies for doing so is to acknowledge contradictions, but explain them away by saying those who represent the arc of injustice and intolerance, in contrast to Dr King’s resonant arc of justice, are marginal people and extremists who do not represent the ideological mainstream. They have no permanent place in American life. It’s a comforting idea, but history illustrates a different reality. Father Charles Coughlin, the Roman Catholic priest who blamed the Great Depression on Jews, had millions of people in his radio audience on Sundays and violent mobs mobilized in his name. It is not a stretch to find the same voice in the violent mob of racists, xenophobes, and conspiracy-minded fantasists who mobilized to attack the United States Capitol Building on 6 January 2021. In the 19th century, there was a legion of racist political demagogues, lynch mobs and night riders terrorized southern blacks, and mobs of white working men attacked Chinese immigrants in California. How marginal can a phenomenon be that is represented, in one guise or another, repeatedly throughout American history?

This, too, is “the real America,” and Americans must face the fact that it is part of us, the Janus-faced reality of American identity. To be sure, no one can honestly claim that the deep, abiding divisions in the response to immigration and the related diversification of the population are only about a battle between good and evil. One can be against an open and expansive immigration system and not be a bigot or a racist or insensitive to the aspirations of those who are poor, oppressed, and desire to come to the United States in hopeful anticipation of a secure and stable life. The problem for Biden is that at the most responsible and plausible, the moral arguments for and against an expansive immigration regime cancel one another out in the minds of the debating parties. Exclude the ample numbers of bitter-end racists, armed militias that patrol the southern border, and instinctual xenophobes from the debate, and you still have millions on both sides who can struggle to opposite conclusions on the value of homogeneity versus the value of heterogeneity. At bottom, the contending opinions mirror that Janus-face of American identity: cosmopolitan or wary, embracing change in the composition of the population or abhorring it. There has never been one America when it comes to immigration law and policy. Cycles of generous expansion of the numbers of immigrants and refugees fluctuate with cycles of contraction and quotas, when the dominant national mood is “Enough is enough!” and threads of racist and xenophobic opinion do thread their way throughout mainstream discourse. The fact racists and xenophobes may be the descendants of immigrants, as so many Americans are, makes for a bitter irony, but it doesn’t change their opinions, if they believe their ancestors were worthy and the new immigrants that they see around them somehow are not.

If Biden is to succeed in convincing the other “real America,” he is probably not going to do so advancing notions of decency and generosity. He may begin by proving to people that immigration is good for the country and hence for them too. The arguments on behalf of immigration are strong. Immigrants, even illegal ones, pay taxes that pay for social programs; immigrants manifest a strong work ethic, seek to acquire property, and get their children educated, and the legally situated ones commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans do. (It is harder, of course, to know about crime among the illegally situated by the nature of their shadow existence.) But you are likely to be more effective if you prove that immigrants aren’t taking jobs away from Americans and depressing wage scales, a matter on which there is abiding debate among economists. At a time of rapidly accelerating inequality and contraction of the middle class, people who feel financially insecure are especially animated when it comes to these economic discussions. Biden faces a difficult task, not only in ideological terms, but in maintaining a diverse coalition of races and ethnic groups and expanding it so that his party maintains its fragile control of Congress. Which of these real Americas emerges in the third decade of the 21st century will determine the course the nation follows in immigration reform.

Featured image by Kelly Sikkema

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