Open immigration is not an American Value
By Constance A. Dunn
In January, a travel ban for Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Yemen rocked the nation. It is now the beginning of March and that ban has been put on hold.
On the announcement of the ban, protesters flooded the airport, followed by lawyers offering pro-bono work to detained travelers, particularly legal resident green card holders. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) filed a lawsuit against the federal government opposing the ban and won a temporary stay. The stay was issued by a federal judge. The DHS (Department of Homeland Security) chose to ignore the court order. All hell broke loose on social media channels. In early February 2017, a federal judge upheld the stay on the ban nationally and the DHS ceased its implementation of the executive order. But the Department of Justice is fighting on the new president’s behalf to appeal the federal court decision.
With the current travel ban, the detention of permanent residents and green card holders showed a real overstepping of power and a flagrant disregard for rule of law. In general, the use of executive orders to push through policy is a disturbing trend and a clear sign that our checks and balances on power are not working.
An unprecedented injustice has clearly been committed and a public reacted. So far, it looks like the public is winning. And why not? We are after all an upright country built on the hard work of immigrants going back many generations. We celebrate our rise to power as a nation of diverse individuality. We are America, the land of dreams and opportunity, founded on religious freedom. Sound familiar? No wonder, it’s the same rhetoric that has been used by politicians in every election, that has been passed down from parent to child, that resonates in classrooms. I’ve heard it so many times that I can regurgitate it here like an oft-repeated prayer.
Every four years, immigration is a key platform for candidates on all sides of the political spectrum. It is an emotional issue for many, but rarely do the proposed policies directly affect voters – in other words, a safe platform.
Long before I could ever vote, I was told the story of America as a nation of brave immigrants, beginning with the Puritans – Christian refugees seeking an end to their oppression as an unpopular sect in their native England and as foreigners in Holland. Americans as children are led to believe that our relatively “open” borders are unique in the world. That no other nation has been the safe haven that the United States has been to the poor and oppressed. That the march towards progress has been linear and ever productive with a handful of intrepid individuals leading the way.
At a recent protest I attended in Louisville, Kentucky, signs read “we are a nation of immigrants” and “our nation was built on immigrants.” The rally itself was called “A Rally for American Values.” But these values, like so much of the American Dream story, are clever marketing at best, propaganda at worst. The Statue of Liberty – the Nike swoosh of freedom — with Emma Lazarus’ poem ‘The New Colossus’ adorning its pedestal was, after all, a gift from the French.
Lazarus’ lines “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are often repeated in public discourse as representative of what America stands for and the decency that our country, unlike others, shows to new arrivals. However, the sentiment immortalized in the poem has never been reflected in law. Quite the contrary, immigration policy in the United States has always been prone to xenophobia and racism.
Give me your tired… your completely exhausted
As a superpower, we are in a constant state of war, one kind of war or another anyway. It’s no secret that the U.S. has fought proxy wars with other superpowers to protect its interests in resource-rich nations. But it is our interventionist political tactics in the name of democracy that have been devastating to our international reputation, to put it mildly. There is no question that we have put ourselves in real danger of reactionary violence and so we must keep the borders under control. But public opinion would have us accept the consequences of our intervention and at the very least take in those who’ve been rendered homeless by our actions. A sensible compromise from a legal point of view is immigration quotas.
The U.S. yearly quota for asylum visas is 85,000, broken down into individual quotas by region. There are far more than 85,000 asylum seekers applying every year, 620,000 applied in 2016 alone, meaning that asylum seekers are waylaid for years prior to being processed and vetted. Countries with an on-going war on their own soil aren’t particularly forthcoming with paperwork, and if your belongings, documents and family have all been lost or destroyed, this creates problems. One can assume that there are oversights, but for the most part, refugees have been through hell and back to get to the United States.
Beyond the vetting process, the DHS and customs can hold a non-citizen at the border for any reason, before and after the travel ban. Typically, people are held because officers suspect them of being dishonest about their stay length (in the case of a tourist visa), smuggling, trafficking or a suspected security threat. The methods used to determine nefarious activity are not hard science and rely mostly on logical reasoning and instinct, which makes human error inevitable. Innocent people of many faiths, origins, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds have been held at the border for hours and/or questioned intensively. Some have been deported. In 2014, the Obama administration attempted to curtail profiling at borders, but border agents persist in questioning those they have identified as a risk by race and ethnicity. Since the passing of the Patriot Act and the creation of the DHS, even U.S. citizens are subjected to inspection at the border, including having information copied from their electronic devices.
Every four years, immigration is a key platform for candidates on all sides of the political spectrum. It is an emotional issue for many, but rarely do the proposed policies directly affect voters – in other words, a safe platform. It is a bipartisan issue and stringent immigration policy crosses party lines. It was Former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 laws on immigration that set the ball rolling on the current increase in deportation and detainment, while Former President Bush’s policies following 9/11 did the rest. With each violent attack or sensationalized story, it becomes easier to get a discriminatory policy past the public. But we as a citizenry chose this; it is a democracy.
Your poor… but not too poor
My husband is an immigrant who’s tourist visa application was rejected twice prior to him emigrating to the States. The first time my husband’s tourist visa was rejected so was every other visa applicant before him. An American tourist visa, for the countries that are required to apply, is notoriously difficult to get, even with a strong application and multiple support documents.
The support my husband and I gathered for his visa paperwork following the first rejection was again bipartisan. House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office wrote a letter to the consulate on our behalf, as did Democratic Congressman John Yarmouth’s office. After the second visa rejection, McConnell’s office called the U.S. Consulate to inquire why the visa had been rejected when all the paperwork was filed correctly and my husband was not a security threat. They gave the office secretary the brush off with, “It’s up to the consulate officer. All decisions are final.” McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is from China, so this is as much a personal issue as a political one for him. Where McConnell’s office failed, I succeeded and discovered through a connection who worked in the embassy that my husband’s file listed his freelance status as the reason for his rejection. There is not an income or professional requirement for applying for a tourist visa, yet you can be rejected for making too little money or for not having full-time employment.
The reason my husband was applying for a visa in the first place was to introduce him to my family at my sister’s wedding prior to marrying him. Considering the other boyfriends I’ve brought home, I understand my parent’s concern. He wouldn’t have needed money to visit future in-laws, he’d be provided with a place to sleep, food to eat, and anything else he may have needed. I had a degree to complete at the university in Belgrade and my husband was expected to return to Serbia to work on various projects with a number of people, all of whom were kind enough to write letters on his behalf. Although the U.S. Embassy website in Serbia states that an applicant should bring all support documents with them to the interview, a letter from a freelance client does not qualify as a support document because no one person can vouch for an applicant, even a senator. Nowhere is this stated on the embassy website. In the end, it was our free-wheeling lifestyle that made my husband an overstay risk according to the consulate officers and no one could convince them otherwise.
Since it wasn’t going to be possible for my fiance to meet my family in the States, we made a cardboard cutout of him to be my date to my sister’s wedding. I made sure to show the consulate officer who interviewed us for his green card the pictures of me with the cardboard cutout. She didn’t find it as funny as I did, but my husband’s face palm gesture made it clear that we are in a real relationship so it served its purpose.
Our economy is the world’s envy. To keep our country on the cutting edge of innovation, we need to import highly skilled labor from other countries to boost our own technocracy while at the same time diminishing the ability of competitor nations to keep up. Smart, right? You’d think we’d make it easy for companies to hire a highly skilled labor force from other nations. After all, there are simply not enough Americans who can work these types of jobs. The quota for employment visas isn’t much higher than for asylum seekers at 140,000, with 80,000 set aside for the most skilled and educated. But to quote a popular meme, “Yes, you Gary with your high school diploma, Hamed the neurosurgeon is taking your job.”
The case for immigration won out and the next 50 years saw a large number of immigrants escaping war, genocide and poverty. As long as they were European, they were welcome.
The quota for “unskilled” jobs is 5,000. Consider how many more jobs there are to fill in the unskilled labor category over the highly skilled labor. It is true that migrant laborers are often willing to work for less than Americans, which makes them more desirable to employers. But Americans simply don’t want the types of jobs that are available to migrant workers.
Of course, there are many reasons to emigrate and people come with complicated stories. Best to make things fair by setting the same quota for every nation. That’s exactly what we did in 1965, immigration from any single nation cannot exceed seven percent of the total immigration numbers in the U.S. in any given year. But some immigration lawyers argue that this is just another way to ensure that the majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. are from smaller more affluent countries, given that countries the size of Luxembourg are allowed the same percentage of immigrants as a country with the population of Mexico. What this means is that legal immigrants from countries with large populations may wait years before being reviewed.
Serbia is a small country, but it still took my husband and me two years to go through the immigration process. The time would have been shorter had we not worked with an incompetent lawyer. Two years for a family based immigration application with a U.S. citizen spouse, which has no numerical limit in the quota system. Imagine the added difficulties for a family fleeing oppression or applying for a visa from a country with a massive population and a struggling economy.
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… within reason
It takes a large workforce and a multitude of skills to build a nation like the United States, so there was little regulation of immigration for the new republic in the late 1700s. A free flow of people from all over the world came looking for new opportunities or were brought unwillingly as slaves to work large land holdings. When everyone is from somewhere else and there is enough to go around, then there no such thing as a “foreigner”, only a slave or a free-born man. This held true for the first 70 years of the United States. There is a painful irony in Americans’ concern about immigrants taking their jobs when so many were forcibly brought to the U.S. to work many of those jobs little more than a century ago.
But when the economy took a dip, as economies tend to do from time to time, feelings changed towards immigrants. People turned against new arrivals, claiming that these “outsiders” were taking their jobs. Movements popped up demanding that the borders be closed. The Know-Nothings are an example of this and were, ironically, particularly concerned about the growing Catholic population. It was the Republican Party that saved the day against the appropriately named Know-Nothings with their 1864 platform: “Foreign immigration which in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase of power to the nation…should be fostered and encouraged.”
So, the case for immigration won out and the next 50 years saw a large number of immigrants escaping war, genocide, and poverty. As long as they were European, they were welcome. The tide turned against immigrants of Asian origin in the late 19th century with the Opium Wars and a flood of Chinese immigrants claiming jobs on the railroads. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Chinese people from entering the U.S. while another diplomatic arrangement with the smarmy name “The Gentlemen’s Agreement” prevented working-class Japanese immigrants from entering the U.S. any further than the Ellis Island Harbor. The latter was a mutual agreement made between the Japanese government and the United States in hopes of preventing further tensions between white Americans and Japanese immigrants after the San Francisco school board decided to segregate all their Japanese-American students. Apparently, the Japanese were upset about being treated with the same racism as the Chinese and would rather avoid it altogether by keeping their workers at home.
WWI shut down the borders almost completely and a series of laws restricting immigration were passed throughout the 1920s. In 1924, a quota law was passed that favored European countries. The economy collapsed a few years later and many immigrants willingly left the U.S., while Mexican immigrants were forcibly removed with the Mexican Repatriation Act. President Trump’s threat of deportation, which is beginning to turn into action, is not the first mass removal of Mexican nationals.
After the U.S. declared war on the Axis Powers, both German and Italian immigrants were banned. Some refugees from Nazi oppression were allowed in the 1930s, but most were turned away. Japanese people living in America were interned in camps within U.S. borders during WWII and no new immigrants from Japan were allowed in the country.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 opened the borders once again to refugees, and many came, but many more were turned away. In the 1950s, the number of refugees allowed was increased, but the quotas by nation re-enforced so that European immigrants were still favored. It wasn’t until 1965 when the Hart-Cellar Act was signed, that the quota system favoring Europeans was abandoned.
This quick and dirty rundown of the history of U.S. immigration policy goes to show that if you’d like to discover the prejudices of a nation, you need look no further than that country’s immigration policy. Currently, we are afraid of the random violence of a radicalized Muslim minority that has terrorized civilian populations throughout the world, and, a running theme from the early 20th century, being “overrun” by Mexican families. But not long ago we were concerned about the growing population of Chinese and Japanese.
What is incredible is not that an American government has enacted a discriminatory policy in response to these prejudices, it is that the people being detained or prevented from entering the States now have vocal support from U.S. citizens. When the quotas favoring Europeans were extended in 1952, few decried the decision. It had bipartisan support and was barely a tweet in the news. The reaction to the recent travel ban is a testament to a remarkable shift in thinking about borders, foreign-ness, the “other”. A kind of thinking that will hopefully carry us far past a four-year presidential term.
Yearning to breathe free…
When it comes to unraveling an immigration policy that has fundamental problems far beyond bans, one which subjects guests, and potential new Americans of all backgrounds to a confusing mix of politics, provisions, harassment, interrogation and non-transparency, it will take far more than a series of protests. It will require the serious and tedious work of lawmakers and diligent support of U.S. citizens. A fair and reasonable immigration policy that treats people humanely is a goal, not an established value.
This land of freedom is not the unified picture of a nation that was sold to us as children. It is a far more chaotic, complicated, horrible, but also more beautiful than we were led to believe. It is indeed a land built by immigrants, but before that, it was built by indigenous populations, slaves and colonists. We are not exceptional in our brutality, for many nations are built with the same mix of human fallibility and ingenuity. Freedom is messy and unequally distributed. Sometimes people on both sides of the political spectrum are willing to sell it on for security because it requires too much personal responsibility, too much thinking.
Emotionally charged headlines and radicalized rhetoric on all sides are setting the stage for an ideological civil war between the people of America. We’ve lived far too long under the weight of an “American Dream” that has never been achieved and a set of values that are different depending on who you ask. Perhaps this has made us entitled, convinced of our own rightness and goodness, comfortable in our middle-class bubble. There is no doubt that we are a stubborn nation and unworldly. But like so many nations, our value lies in the things we take for granted because with stubbornness comes work ethic, with work ethic comes innovation and with a dream comes hope.
Constance A. Dunn is a nonfiction editor at The Missing Slate.