Immigration and National Identity

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It’s easy to say, “our immigration system is broken.” Or to declare: “we are a nation of immigrants.”

But neither description goes very far to explain the realities of immigration and immigration policy in America. To get closer to the reality, you need a more sharply focused statement – something like the following: “we are a nation in a long-standing struggle over immigration, a struggle that reaches back to the founding of this republic.”

This statement points to fundamental conflicts that have riven the nation for many decades. These conflicts concern issues of value and national identity, questions as to how inclusive and protective of human rights a society can be – or how oppressive it can become by virtue of policies and political choices that keep millions of people disenfranchised and economically vulnerable.

Debates will soon begin in Congress over a path to citizenship for up to 10.2 million undocumented individuals, but the run-up to these debates has already been marked by recent court rulings representing significant setbacks for immigrant rights. In July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is unlawful, continuing to cast in doubt the fate of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients (those who came here when just children, most often with parents, frequently so young they have few memories of any other country than the US, including many who are now adults with degrees, careers, and families).

Then, on August 19, another Texas judge blocked the immigration enforcement priorities set by the Biden administration earlier this year, priorities that would have pivoted sharply from the open-ended targeting of immigrants by the Trump administration.

In memoranda issued in January and February, the administration spelled out its priorities for immigration enforcement, directing the government’s attention to individuals who pose a threat to national security or public safety, or who entered the country after November 1, 2020.

The Biden directives hearkened back to enforcement priorities established during the Obama administration, diverging significantly from the Trump administration’s policy that made any person who lacked documentation (e.g. a green card or naturalization papers) vulnerable to ICE raids, detention, and deportation.

As a volunteer with an organization supporting low-wage workers and immigrants in Los Angeles, whose larger metropolitan area is home to almost 900,000 undocumented people, I witnessed first-hand the terror associated with this policy, as people were rounded up and detained: older workers, mothers, college students. People became afraid of going to work, going to a mall, reporting domestic violence, or taking their children to college in other parts of the state or country. The administration’s intent to inculcate fear was explicit. As Thomas Homan, Acting Director of ICE in 2017, made clear to all undocumented people, “you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.”

And all this activity (raids, detentions, and threats) took place against the soundtrack of racist diatribes emanating from the president himself.

Certainly the Biden administration’s effort to shift enforcement priorities cannot fully compensate for serious flaws in other immigration policies that it supports; the administration still embraces, for example, the use of private detention facilities that have been notorious for their abuses. But the shift marked an important step in the right direction.

Now, with narrow Democratic majorities in Congress, there’s an opportunity to take a much bigger step: opening a path to citizenship for the first time since President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, legalizing three million people.

As the debate over citizenship heats up in the coming weeks, you will, I hope, hear many arguments for opening a path to citizenship to DACA recipients and the millions of essential workers toiling in factories, fields, medical settings, and in settings where caregiving for the young and elderly is needed. These arguments, based on sound data, point to substantial economic benefits that would accrue from opening a path to citizenship – and point as well to the continuing need for immigrants to reinvigorate rural areas and boost regional economic growth.

You will also hear appeals to fear: fear of the Other, fear generated to serve political ambitions. Those appeals can already be seen in responses to the influx of Afghan refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home country.

From a historical perspective, the debates will echo those that accompanied forward movements, like the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, as well as those that accompanied ignominious moments: e.g., the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, or the passage of eugenics-inspired legislation in the 1920’s that set immigration quotas, particularly for Eastern and Southern Europe.

If a path to citizenship can indeed be opened for the first time in 35 years, it will not mark the end of these debates, nor the end of the struggle over national identity. But it will demonstrate that the nation can still affirm human rights in practice: the right to live without fear, the right to realize one’s potential as a contributing citizen and full member of one’s community.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.