Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy.
By Cecilia Muñoz | New America Foundation
On the eve of the 2018 mid-term elections, NY TImes columnist David Brooks mused, “Over the next few decades, America will become a majority-minority country. It is hard to think of other major nations, down through history, that have managed such a transition and still held together.” Hard indeed; we are living in an age in which many Americans wonder whether something that we have taken for granted, which is that we built an enduring multi-ethnic democracy, is in fact true. Worse, as we look to the future, it seems reasonable to wonder whether it is even possible.
At the same time, the United States brings unique assets to this challenge. We were founded on the premise of equality, and while we have failed to live up to our ideals in epic ways, (the genocide of native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, explicitly racist restrictions on immigration, just to name a few) the United States has somehow managed to become a place that makes progress - a place that publicly celebrates its diversity even as it struggles to realize the equality that is at the core of its national ideals. Somehow, these ideals have endured, and the fight to achieve them has been the catalyst for social movements that have produced great change. This is a source of strength and pride, something that, when we are at our best, we offer to the world.
At the moment, we are not even close to being at our best. The President of the United States regularly and purposefully stokes racial hatred and fear, aiming his most vicious rhetoric at African Americans, immigrants, and communities associated with immigration. Even after his statements accusing refugees of endangering the U.S. were echoed by the perpetrator of a horrific mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, President Trump doubled down, focusing his ire on a distant group of desperate migrants, as if crossing Mexico on foot posed some kind of threat to the United States.
He has chosen immigrants and refugees as his targets for a reason. His policy ideas - and some of his team - come from groups whose racist roots and restrictionist agenda have occupied the fringes of the debate for the last forty years, but have now become mainstream. As disturbing as it is, we must acknowledge that fear of migrants has caught on with a substantial segment of the public; for the President’s adoring fans, this is an appealing issue. President Trump’s attacks are a deliberate strategy, causing incalculable damage to immigrants themselves, and to our nation’s capacity to be a fully inclusive democracy.
Pushing back will require much more than simply standing up to racism. Indeed, to regain the upper hand in the debate about immigrants and refugees, we will need to isolate those with racially charged views by addressing what makes their agenda -- to drastically curtail immigration - appealing to Americans who don’t occupy the fringes.
To take the President’s favorite argument as an example, the accusation that migrants and refugees are dangerous is utterly false. There are reams of evidence that the foreign-born tend to be more law abiding than those who are born in the U.S., and that communities with substantial numbers of immigrants and refugees have lower crime rates than the rest of the country. Presenting that evidence, however, has little positive impact on the debate; instead, it lures us into having a debate with the President on his terms.
This has distracted us from addressing the legitimate concern that lurks behind the hyperbole and racially-charged language. Even if they don’t object to immigrants on the basis of race, the vast majority of Americans believe that our borders should be managed in a reasonable and effective way. Even if we were to all agree that migrants aren’t dangerous, we have left our fellow Americans to wonder if we can agree that there should be rules and limits governing who we should admit. We have even made it possible for them to wonder whether those that defend immigrants from this President’s misguided policies are even prepared to engage in a conversation about what those rules and limits should be. By keeping us focused on attacking his words and his policies -- all of which are well worthy of attack -- the President is also capitalizing on the fact that we are short of answers on what kind of immigration policy best serves the successful multi-racial democracy we hope to achieve. We have left a void and he is filling it.
What this means is that those of us who don’t share President Trump’s view of immigrants and refugees have to operate on multiple fronts. Of course, we have to continue to push back on unacceptable discourse and terrible policy. We know what we have to say no to, and we have to continue to say it loudly and clearly.
At the same time, we must also lead the conversation on what the American people should be saying yes to. We must develop an affirmative agenda that speaks to the average American’s reasonable expectation that immigration to the United States be an orderly process, with a reasonable set of rules and limits, one that maximizes both our best values and our economic needs. There is ample reason to believe that the policy which best meets our country’s economic needs is both generous and consistent with our highest values, by reuniting families, providing more room for immigrants bringing needed skills to our economy, and reopening our doors to those fleeing violence and persecution. But we can’t win that argument until we actually engage it. And we won’t win the hearts and minds of a confused public by focusing only on the racists among them, even if one of them is the President of the United States.
If we are to have any hope of showing the world what a successful multi-ethnic society looks like, we have to get this part right. Immigration has contributed mightily to the diversity of which Americans are justifiably proud; in fact, it has positioned us as a beacon to the rest of the world, a society in which we are equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of where we were born, a place regularly reinvigorated by those who become Americans by choice. We must begin to see the debate on the future of immigration as one that we can drive, even as we respond to the cruelty of the current administration. We must position ourselves to remind the country that we can have an approach to immigration which meets our needs and reflects our values, and reminds the world of what America looks like when we are at our best.