A New Moral Imagination on Immigration

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New US citizens hold American flags during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey, October 2, 2018

When my parents used all their savings to send me across the oceans from India at the age of sixteen, they made the ultimate sacrifice of separating from their child without knowing if we would ever live on the same continent again. They did so because they believed America was where I would get the best education and have the most opportunity. It took me seventeen years—involving an alphabet soup of visas and the abiding fear that I might not be able to stay in my new home—to get my US citizenship, in 2000. That was a teary and complex moment. Surrounded by people from all over the world, with hands over our hearts, we pledged allegiance to our new country. We knew we were the lucky ones and we were grateful, even as we felt our loss in saying good-bye to the families and countries we had left behind. 

Just a year later, in the wake of September 11, I went on to found and lead what became the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington state. We organized tens of thousands of immigrants, faith leaders, labor unions, and businesses, engaging in a national conversation on immigration, identity, and the need to reform our outdated laws. Today, more than three decades since I arrived in America, I have the privilege of serving as the first South Asian-American woman in the House of Representatives, and I am one of only twelve members of the 115th Congress who are proud naturalized citizens.

I have become intimately familiar with the policy and the politics of immigration, and I am deeply troubled by the widening divide between the inherent complexity of immigration laws and the simplistic, generally punitive rhetoric that aims to criminalize migration. Through my work, I have met many new Americans and am constantly amazed at the sheer diversity of how they came here and what they end up doing—as farmworkers, doctors, caregivers, entrepreneurs, or researchers. Their stories add to the long tapestry of this uniquely American experience, one that is central to our national identity.  

And today’s immigration stories are stitched to the stories and experiences of each successive wave of new arrivals: the Irish, Polish, Germans, Chinese, Mexicans, Jews, Greeks, Nigerians, Somalis, and many others. More than most others, America is a nation of the imagination: its imagined horizons promised our forebears the freedoms of a nobler, more resilient, more just society, one that did not exist anywhere else and would be created from whole cloth by daring trailblazers and idealists who celebrated the land of plenty. It was this imagined America that spurred people to come. In their coming, and their working here, they built America and their successors continue to do so.  

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the demand for labor in this new, growing nation meant that almost anyone who arrived here was allowed into the country with just a physical exam—unless they fell into a few deeply exclusionary categories. Before 1921, the only immigration laws that existed were ones that restricted Chinese people from immigrating (repealed only in 1943), as well as excluding most other Asians and certain categories of people such as prostitutes, those with “dangerous and loathsome contagious disease,” or “the insane.” Later, in 1921 and 1924, quotas were established based on race and nationality, heavily favoring immigrants from Western Europe. 

But because there were few laws and little bureaucratic control over who came and stayed, undocumented immigration was the norm for generations. As much as “amnesty” has become a dirty word today, amnesties were applied to waves of European immigrants who were here without proper authorization. The 1929 Registry Act, for example, allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents if they could prove they had been here since 1921 and were of “good moral character.”  

It wasn’t until 1965 that the national-origin quota system was abolished and replaced with a system whereby immigrants were admitted on the basis of relationships to immediate family members or employers. The last major overhaul of the immigration system to increase legal admissions caps, in 1990, focused largely on employment-based visas.

Complex and multifaceted as our history on immigration is, it is marked by two deep traditions that are at war with each other. One is inextricably bound up with bigotry, while the other is tied to the spirit of generosity and renewal of a country that is always being shaped by those who come here. This battle has to be fought in every generation, and it has never been easy. 

Today, the election of President Trump and his makeover of the Republican Party has resulted in some of the nastiest rhetoric about immigrants to ever come from the White House. The president and his hardline advisers coldly calculate that their path to political victory is best served by stoking fear: what were once fringe racist theories of immigrant “invasion” and “infestation” are amplified into existential threats and directed toward an implicitly white, Christian America. This is not the nation that generations of Americans created or imagined.


The midterm elections, however, have provided a glimmer of hope. In the final weeks leading up to them, Trump worked from his anti-immigrant playbook. He lit up the airwaves with an unconstitutional threat to revoke the citizenship of those born here, and trafficked in the fear of a supposed horde of migrants that he claimed necessitated the sending of some 7,000 troops to the border. In spite of all this, Americans in red and blue districts across the country elected a wave of diverse Democrats to a comfortable majority in the House despite a map gerrymandered to favor Republicans, and limited losses in the Senate. 

Now it’s more important than ever that Democrats—and any remaining willing Republicans—recapture America’s moral imagination on immigration. Our job is to tell the truth about immigration instead of cowering before falsehoods. Anti-immigrant forces would have us believe that our laws work and that undocumented immigrants prefer to live in the shadows, where they can “game the system” and benefit unfairly from the generosity of taxpayers. The worst thing about this narrative is not that it’s absolutely false, but that it obscures the deep, common desire that all of us—aspiring Americans and those already here—have for one simple thing: an updated, orderly, and effective process for people to come to America, stay, and work here. 

As long as we accept the Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration and try to merely gain small victories against a harsh, restrictionist policy, we will lose—politically, economically, and, most importantly, morally. Instead, we must disperse the fog of lies and scapegoating and make clear that a sensible, humane system of immigration laws is best for everyone.  

As America grows and ages, our economy needs immigrants to replenish America’s work force as baby-boomers age. In the fast-growing industries of domestic care, home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides, immigrants make up the vast majority of workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in those industries alone, from 2016 to 2026, the US will need workers to fill 1.2 million jobs. Yet our legal immigration system is groaning under the weight of outdated category caps that simply don’t meet the needs of our economy or our people. The number of visas for nonagricultural workers (such as construction workers, housekeepers, or forest workers) is stuck at the 1990 level of 66,000 visas—even though our economy requires millions. Just last year, more than 3.9 million US citizens and permanent residents who had applied legally for their closest family members—parents, spouses, children, and siblings—were in an immigration processing “backlog” that could take decades to clear. (Contrary to the “chain migration” narrative, these immediate family members are the only ones eligible to migrate via the family-based system.)

There is also still bipartisan consensus that we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations (under US and international law) to take asylum seekers and refugees from around the world. Refugees and asylum seekers are often fleeing the very forces of oppression, war, and dictatorship that threaten the world’s safety, including America’s. In some cases, the United States has been complicit in propping up foreign leaders that become dictators, or in fostering economic conditions that lead to devastation. In all cases, consigning millions of people to refugee camps with little freedom, dire living conditions, and no hope of determining their own futures becomes a moral question for all nations, including those that seek to lead the world. Despite statements to the contrary from this White House, the US ranks only fiftieth in the world for welcoming refugees, and leaders from all faiths (including evangelicals) have emphasized the need to strengthen, not cut, our refugee resettlement program. 

It is critical that Americans understand that there currently is no orderly, functioning process for people to come to America. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, there were superficial, temporary fixes, such as legalizations or “amnesties” for those who were undocumented at the time. But without underlying reform so that the system functions, we were bound to end up in the same place again. Most Republicans—and too many Democrats—have given in to the simplistic narratives supplied by anti-immigrant forces, throwing billions of taxpayer dollars into mass deportations, a vast labyrinth of expensive private prisons, and a border that is already one of the most secure and militarized in the world. 


The problems caused by indiscriminate enforcement and the lack of comprehensive reforms certainly did not start with Donald Trump, but he has taken an approach dramatically different from that of every Republican and Democratic president of the past several decades. Instead of embracing the fact that immigration has been the unique genius of America’s history and is necessary to the economic vitality of our nation, Trump has welcomed the rigidly restrictionist agenda of anti-immigrant zealots. He has instituted inhumane policies such as ripping children from their parents and imprisoning them indefinitely, shackling pregnant women, cutting refugee admissions to their lowest level in decades, curbing all forms of legal migration, and vilifying immigrants at every opportunity. This is not an administration or a Republican Party that has displayed any interest in principled compromises to fix the underlying broken and outdated immigration system or allow it to be fixed. If they did so, they would lose what they see as a potent tool to rile up their base. 

Our prescription for recapturing the moral imagination of immigration must be grounded in a few central principles. We must state clearly our belief that our nation has the right to control who comes in and out at our borders, and knock down the Republican strawman that any Democrat who believes in fixing the immigration system and calls for humane policies actually believes in “open borders.” That is a baseless slander and we should say so. 

An accountable, transparent, and humane plan of enforcement against both employers and employees who continue to break the law is vital, but it’s important to note that with an underlying system of laws that actually works and meets the needs of our economy, we will dramatically reduce the need for enforcement. The vast majority of immigrants currently held in expensive private prisons are there simply because of their undocumented status or because they are waiting to see a judge. With effective reform, these individuals would no longer be held in prison and our immigration courts can go back to functioning efficiently again.  

And we need to promote facts and help Americans understand what the evidence has shown. For example, research shows that, far from reducing illegal immigration, a more militarized and hardened southern border has actually led to enormous surges in the numbers of undocumented immigrants who set down roots in the United States. This seeming paradox arises because in the past, there was a “circular flow” of migration, which meant that workers moved back and forth across the border more easily. Those laws, however, had weak worker protections and were ultimately ended. But this is a roadmap forward: nimble laws with strong worker protections would encourage more migrant workers to stay in the homes they love while supplying our economic needs with their temporary labor.  

We should sing strongly the benefits of family immigration, which has been the bedrock of the US system since its founding—bringing us strivers of all kinds to fill jobs at every skill level.  Family connections have also provided the essential support that immigrants need in order to integrate and become self-sufficient more quickly, contributing to the economy through their work, taxes, and civic contributions—think of grandparents taking care of grandchildren while parents work or of children taking care of aging parents. Those closest relatives who come in through the family-based system bring great benefits—to their families and to our economy—and their applications should be processed immediately.  

While our immigration system should be updated regularly to prioritize certain industries that are seeing rapid growth and need workers, we also need a new set of domestic policies that address the problems of declining economic conditions for both American-born and immigrant workers. In industries that are undergoing structural change or decline, measures like retraining initiatives and new investment programs would help displaced workers find reliable new jobs quickly.  

At the same time, we must put resources into helping immigrants integrate rapidly in their new home. The sooner immigrants can learn to speak English (while preserving their own languages) and obtain the skills and training they need to realize their talents, the sooner our nation will see the economic and civic benefits of their presence. 

Finally, we must recognize our strong national interest in development, diplomacy, and the protection of human rights around the world. Rather than using the blunt tool of a militaristic foreign policy, American investments in countries that uphold the rule of law pays off by encouraging people to make their own opportunities where they live, rather than feeling forced to make perilous migrations. The logical, cost-effective way to address the root causes of migration is to focus our efforts on building equitable economies and rights in countries that send the biggest flows of people to America.  

Economists from both parties are also well aware of the economic benefits of immigration. Back in 2005, they were extensively summarized by President George W. Bush’s Economic Report of the President, which found “a comprehensive accounting of the benefits and costs of immigration that shows the benefits of immigration exceed the costs.” The report noted, among other things, that Social Security payroll taxes paid by undocumented workers who can never claim those benefits back had led to a $463 billion funding surplus. In other words, undocumented immigrants are paying for the retirement of this country’s aging, mostly Caucasian, population. The following year, the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a 2006 report that “the argument that immigrants harm the American economy should be dismissed out of hand.” A economic projections from a 2013 White House report showed that passing comprehensive immigration reform would contribute an additional $1.4 trillion to GDP by 2033.  

And in spite of the rhetoric and the cruel policies of Trump and other Republicans, Americans do not actually believe that immigration is some unspeakable “third-rail” of American politics. In fact, in the history of public polling, immigration has never been more popular. A Gallup poll this year found that a record 75 percent of Americans consider immigration “a good thing.” A 2017 poll found that the percentage of Americans saying immigrants “mostly help” the economy reached its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993. Simultaneously, fears that immigrants bring crime, take jobs from American-born, or damage the budget and overall economy are at an all-time low. The share of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration has fallen from a high of 63 percent in the mid-1990s also to an all-time low of just 29 percent, as of June.  

We know the basic pillars of immigration reform. As recently as 2013, the United States Senate passed—with a remarkable sixty-eight bipartisan votes—a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have fixed many of the most outdated parts of immigration law. The bill was a major compromise for left and right, setting aside $40 billion over ten years to pay for more border security while creating a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants—including Dreamers –and fixing the outdated family visa caps, processing the immigration backlogs, and addressing the critical workforce needs of employers. 

Had that bill been allowed to come to the floor of the House for a vote, everyone acknowledges that it would have passed. Instead, since then we’ve spent over $20 billion on border security, but with no underlying solutions to our immigration policy. Worse, we have besmirched America’s reputation and betrayed our values with the inhumane separation of families and detention of children (many of whom will likely never see their parents again). Americans know this, feel it, and abhor it: one recent poll found that two-thirds of those polled opposed detaining families with children who come to the border seeking asylum, while three-quarters supported humane forms of enforcement (such as providing families that are seeking to live free from danger with case managers who can ensure they understand and are in full compliance with the process).  

We can do this, and we must. Imagine a country with immigration laws that actually work. We would know who is in the country, and they would not be hiding in the shadows but getting to know their neighbors, investing in houses and cars, and becoming quintessential Americans. In our country’s history, immigration has never been just about policy. It has always been about who we are and what we are willing to stand up for. That is why a fair and forward-looking immigration system must be at the heart of America’s moral imagination. 

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