A Constituency for Immigrants

 This semester, I am teaching an honors class at KSU based on questions raised in the Refuge or Refusal traveling exhibit created by the MHHE in 2018. The class alternates between facilitated discussions with the students based on readings focused on immigration history and visiting speakers who Zoom in and offer their perspectives on contemporary issues. The students, who range across majors from anthropology to mechanical engineering, and nursing to zoology, post discussion questions in advance. They are then asked to think critically about what kinds of research they would need to do to answer their questions properly. The final assignment in the course will be to come up with a research question related to immigration and tentative plan for how they would collect the data necessary to answer their question.

Readers of this blog will know that I've been posting regularly about the intersections of immigration, public history, and current events since 2008. But it was last week's visiting speaker, Isha Lee of Welcoming America, who raised an issue I hadn't really considered before. She told the students that when Welcoming America was founded in 2009 with a public policy advocacy mission, its founders were told by government insiders that the reason no comprehensive immigration legislation had moved forward in Congress since 1990 was that there was "no constituency for immigrants." So instead of advocating policy at the federal or even state level, Welcoming America focused on building a movement locally. The organization's efforts range from helping to share data on immigration impacts gathered by economists and think tanks to creating metrics for municipalities to assess the welcoming nature of their policies. And since people begin to care about others when they get to know them, they also promote a week of festivities centered on food, music, and conversation every September.

2020 Welcoming Week Logo from Welcoming America


After class last week, I kept chewing on this idea of "no constituency for immigrants." When I started the research that led to the creation of Refuge or Refusal, I knew that there was plenty of constituency against immigrants. In 2016, that seemed to be the primary cause of Donald Trump's nomination to the republican ticket. And yet, I'd grown up in the 1990s. I'd heard the phrase "a nation of immigrants" uttered by politicians too many times to count on my fingers. I'd also been to countless Passover seders in which we talked about the imperative of welcoming the stranger, for "we had been strangers in the land of Egypt." But it seems that I was foiled again by the shifting media landscape and the disconnected spaces of political information.

Thus, when I heard President Biden's first foreign policy speech on the radio, and the analysis that followed it, I was surprised again by the workings of public opinion. President Biden rooted his plans for an expanded refugee policy in a recognition of the worldwide effects of climate change as well as the need for a withdrawal of U.S. arms from violent conflicts, including the civil war in Yemen. Biden noted that "The United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first got here.  We shined the light of liberty on oppressed people.  We offered safe havens for those fleeing violence or persecution.  And our example pushed other nations to open wide their doors as well." The analyst who contextualized the president's speech and explained his executive order to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 for the next fiscal year noted that Trump's war on refugees and asylum seekers had back-fired with recent polls showing increased bi-partisan support especially for refugees. By demonizing refugees as a part of a hardline approach to immigration rooted in the rhetoric of fear and criminalization, Trump had inspired more people to think about immigration in new ways. Time will tell whether he did his part to create a constituency for immigrants after all.   

I've posted so many lamentation on this issue recently. I'm grateful to have the chance to post something hopeful instead. I know that it will not be easy to welcoming 125,000 refugees during a global pandemic, and that executive orders can only go so far, but this is a start. And I will do my part to share my gratitude with those who make policy as well as those who benefit from it. This is the America I want to live in-- a place where people want to come, not from where people hope to flee.