One of the signal stories of 2021 was a narrative of unfulfilled promise: the promise by a new president to open a path to citizenship to 10.2 million immigrants – and the thwarting of that promise by the politics of a particular historical moment. As the story goes, Congress members supporting immigration reform included a path to citizenship in the president’s “Build Back Better” bill. But the Senate parliamentarian nixed the immigration provision, and Senator Joe Manchin subsequently refused to vote for the bill itself, ending all hopes for immigration reform in 2021.
That is the story as generally reported.
But there’s another narrative running right below its surface, a narrative about an ideology that falsely casts immigrants as threats to Americans’ physical and economic security. Among other things, this ideology serves an important purpose: to veil the genuine threat posed by an economic inequality that undermines our collective well-being.
One can see this false ideology expressed in many different images and themes. There’s the image of the “illegal alien” who brings drugs and crime over our southern borders, or the theme of immigrants taking Americans’ jobs and driving wages down.
Then there’s the narrative of immigrants being allowed to vote illegitimately – even being used by Democrats, as Fox news host Tucker Carlson recently claimed, “to change the population of the United States in a way that guarantees they win every election going forward.” This scheme, Carlson asserted, is “an assault on democracy.”
It’s certainly important to debunk a false ideology: to cite evidence that shows immigrants having lower crime rates than native-born citizens, to point to economic benefits of putting millions on a path to full citizenship, and to end the human toll endured by so many who have lived in limbo for years – despite the service they’ve rendered as essential workers in fields such as health care, agriculture, and construction.
By the same token, it’s important to recognize that the demonization of immigrants has long historical roots, roots deeply tinged in racism. Witness the campaigning that led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a piece of legislation that effectively barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States.
But debunking isn’t enough. It’s also necessary to identify a false ideology as a veil that helps cover up deeper threats. To understand this phenomenon, imagine a split-screen picture of America at the beginning of 2022.
On one side of the screen, take in a picture of four American families who benefited this year from the child tax credit, provided by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by the president last March. Receiving monthly checks rather than an end-of-financial-year lump sum payment, these families (as reported by the New York Times) were given vital financial breathing room: money to repair a car, to pay for a child’s preschool, to ensure that the children were getting adequate nutrition, and to pay for utilities. Such assistance, coming at a time when 580,000 people are homeless and 38.3 million live in food insecure households, has been essential.
But the child tax credit payments ended December 15, and Mr. Manchin and his Republican colleagues in the Senate refused to support their extension in the Build Back Better Act, characterizing the extension as inflationary.
On the other side of the imaginary split-screen, take in another family picture, this time of a father and son and the rift dividing them. The father is Ron Wyden, the Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman, and his son is Adam Wyden, manager of a hedge fund with $330 million in assets. The younger Wyden has come out publicly against the efforts of his father and other Senate Democrats to close tax loopholes and to increase taxes on the ultrarich, measures that would go a long way to take millions of children out of poverty and alleviate the burdens on countless families.
This family rift has taken on an extra edge in the context of disclosures earlier this year that the 25 wealthiest Americans paid little to nothing in federal income taxes between 2014 and 2018.
Surveying the two sides of this split-screen picture, you might want to remember that most of the elected officials who oppose measures shrinking inequality and alleviating economic hardship are the same ones promulgating the myth of the immigrant as a threat. There is no coincidence in this.
Neither is there anything fixed about what can appear on the split-screen picture. The degree of future inequality – as well as the treatment of millions of immigrants – will have a lot to do with political choices and political will. But a first choice must always be one of perception: to face reality squarely and to reject the illusions that harm.