Our Great American Myths: On the Public Discourse About Immigration
Cecilia Muñoz Considers Policy Debates, the US-Mexico Border, and the Trump Administration
If there is any single constant in the public discourse about immigration in this nation of immigrants, it’s that emotion is the most powerful driver of the conversation. For better or worse, Americans have views about their ancestors’ immigrant history (or lack of it), and about today’s immigrants as they see them on the news or in the neighborhood. Immigration is baked into the mythology of who we are as a nation, though much of what we think we know about it turns out to be inaccurate.
We think we know how it worked a century or more ago (we insist that our forebears came through an orderly, regulated system and didn’t need help once they got here, neither of which is entirely true). We think we know how it works now (we’re sure that there’s an orderly, fair line where people can wait their turn, and we assume that unauthorized immigrants stubbornly refuse to get in it—but there isn’t a line, and that’s the problem).
Most of what we “know” isn’t true, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Indeed, the facts about immigration and immigrants, even when they’re well established and easily quantifiable (how many are there? Where do they come from? How do they get here? How much government help do they actually use?) are either absent from the conversation entirely or stubbornly unpersuasive if they come up at all.
Because this is such an emotion-laden debate, the most fertile terrain on which to have it has long been a landscape driven by values. Immigration is so central to our understanding of ourselves as a nation, to the individual histories of so many Americans as well as our national myths, that appeals to our emotions around immigration as a source of our identity and strength are powerful and often effective. Since 1965, these appeals have been used in the service of a relatively generous legal immigration policy, which focuses on allowing Americans to bring close family members from abroad and provides avenues for employers to bring in the talent and skills they need, in each case with important limits.
But values are also a driver of anti-immigrant policy and sentiment, as richly demonstrated by the Trump era, in which the most potent emotional appeals were focused on persuading us that we have been too generous, that immigration is out of control, and that extreme measures are needed, especially at the border, to protect the country from what is described as the threat and menace of those seeking to enter. As ugly as this debate has been, it is also arguably a values-focused debate, at least on the surface.
While there’s plenty of evidence that racism and even white supremacy were motivating values for the Trump era, much of Trump’s rhetoric was about law and order, about rules and the expectation that people follow them, and about the necessity of taking drastic action to protect the integrity of our borders. It is important and necessary to challenge outright racism as a basis for policy. At the same time, that response has elided the fact that the racists have claimed the mantle of lawfulness, orderliness, and integrity, even as they foment chaos. Anti-racism is only part of the antidote; the pro-immigrant side of the debate must also present a coherent vision of how an orderly, humane, and rational immigration system can function in the future.
Nowhere is this more true than in the situation at the US-Mexico border. The border is not only a literal entryway for people coming to the United States; it is also the de facto entry point into the debate about immigrants of all kinds, documented and undocumented, whether or not they entered at our southern border. It’s not possible to have a successful discussion about legal immigrants, about enforcement in the interior of the country, about refugees, or about any related topic as long as the public is convinced that the border is out of control.
This is true regardless of what is actually happening at the border itself. We have been having variants of the same discussion about walls, detention facilities, and the size of the Border Patrol for more than 40 years. With the notable exception of 2019, the number of people attempting to enter during the last decade has declined precipitously. The intensity of the debate has nothing to do with the actual intensity of the pressure at the border. It’s as if we immediately enter a fact-free zone as soon as the border is mentioned.
It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that any conversation about addressing the US-Mexico border is a concession to the Right, especially when a demagogue is stoking fears (in the ugliest possible terms) of migrants coming from the South. And the organizations that focus attention on the devastating impacts of the Trump administration’s policies are absolutely right to do so. Unfortunately, however, what this argument looks like to the general public is a debate on whether there should be rules at the border, rather than what these rules should be and how they should be enforced.
The pro-immigrant advocacy community is getting really good at fighting against the policies that it opposes. Tragically, the Trump administration’s actions provided more than enough to push back on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is vital work, but it also prevents engagement in the much more difficult but necessary task of envisioning what the laws, policies, and infrastructure at the border should look like over a longer time horizon. If we expect to rebalance the government’s approach to its various tasks at the border, which include maintaining the integrity of our national boundaries while also abiding by our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, advocates need to be able to articulate what they are for, and persuade the American people that they are for it too.
The intensity of the debate has nothing to do with the actual intensity of the pressure at the border.
I say this as a policymaker, someone who has worked for decades as an advocate and also spent eight years at the highest levels of government attempting to find this balance. As we enter the era of a new administration that is trying to get it right, the people sitting at those tables will need allies and ideas, particularly when there are intense and complex pressures to be managed at the border, which is likely to be true for the foreseeable future.
The harm to immigrants, their families, and the larger US community as a result of Trump-era policies has been incalculable and devastating. Yet for all of the damage that his administration caused, President Trump claimed the mantle of action. As the immigration advocacy world reacted, they reinforced his argument that he was battling mightily for change while his opponents care only about stopping him. Tragically, the necessity of reacting to his damaging policies had the perverse effect of undermining the ability of the immigration advocacy community to advance a narrative that digs the country out of the morass created by the Trump administration.
Indeed, by engaging a debate on his terms, our side lost considerable ground. Even if the Trump era is followed by a less xenophobic one, it is not a foregone conclusion that the damage can be easily undone, or that a new immigration regime can be put in place. In the policy world, having a plan always beats not having one. And responding to the assaults of the Trump administration on immigrants, as important as that is, is not the same thing as having a plan.
Americans recognize that the country would benefit from an update of its immigration laws and policies; indeed, it can be argued that President Trump capitalized on the failure of Congress to act by taking matters into his own hands. Many Americans find action preferable to inaction, even when those actions are extreme. But there is some evidence that the excesses of the Trump administration got the country’s attention and that a majority of the public is uncomfortable with extreme tactics such as separating families at the border. This may be enough to reverse the most harmful policies as the political winds shift, but it will not be sufficient to change the circumstances that leave undocumented immigrants vulnerable, to update the laws governing asylum, or to repair a badly backlogged legal immigration system.
Americans are capable of supporting increases in legal immigration and the provision of a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants at the same time that they expect a secure border. Their feelings about removing undocumented immigrants from the interior of the country are more nuanced. This is not simply a debate about whether immigrants are good or bad. Getting to a good policy with broad support requires finding a way to meet the public where it is, which means defining a new approach that feels orderly, fair, and generous.
This is not simply a debate about whether immigrants are good or bad.
It may feel unsatisfying to build an approach that capitalizes on whatever limited political space is available in the short to medium term, knowing that it will take time to build toward the broader set of reforms that we need. But assuming that decision-makers in the here and now cannot speak up for a politics for which there is not yet broad support is at best a recipe for accomplishing nothing, and at worst could generate a backlash. The challenge for those seeking change is to define what is possible given current constraints, while expanding the space for broader reforms in the longer term.
President Trump and his ilk framed the debate as a choice between toughness and generosity. He pointed to a crisis, and while this involved wild exaggeration, it contained a kernel of truth: the pressures at the US-Mexico border are undeniably real. This set up a dynamic in which his opponents were forced to respond on his terms.
The framing looks something like this:
Response to a crisis:
As long as the discussion is structured along these axes, the pro-immigrant world will be on the losing side. The louder their efforts, the more they reinforce this positioning. The ability to protect immigrants and the nation’s best interests depends on being able to shift to a different framework, aligned along a different set of values.
In recent decades, the moments during which the immigration advocacy community has succeeded in shaping public opinion and even winning the occasional policy debate have involved insisting on a frame of our own making, one that acknowledges the appetite among Americans for a system that is orderly and fair, and creates the space for a set of laws that are generous, humane, and effective. The alternative framing looks something like this:
We all agree that the status quo is unacceptable:
In this formulation, the organizations defending immigrants are squarely on the side of creating a system that is orderly and fair, and that moves the country away from an unacceptable status quo. This framework is achievable, and it positions Trump and his allies where they belong—as incapable of managing the challenges we face, creating chaos that harms immigrants as well as the rest of us while benefiting politically from the chaos they foment.
This requires accepting and acknowledging that what happens at the border is indeed a challenge. It requires reinforcing for the public that the integrity of the border is a legitimate concern, while also reminding them that these challenges can be met in a manner consistent with our nation’s best values. It means rejecting the frame that works for the restrictionists, and forcing them to respond on very different terms.
This excerpt originally appeared in Immigration Matters, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2021 by Ruth Milkman, Deepak Bhargava, and Penny Lewis.