Immigration and the Midterm Elections

Last week millions of voters shifted the balance of congressional power, pushing back at the Trump administration’s assault on democratic institutions.  As if in response, Trump raised the stakes of the struggle on many fronts, including immigration.  Within three days of the election, he announced that asylum seekers entering the country at any place other than authorized ports of entry would be denied asylum rights.

Trump did so after weeks and months of other attacks on immigrants, from efforts to terminate the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program to proposing rules that would deny green card holders their status if they applied for public benefits like food stamps.  He has attempted to shut down the TPS (Temporary Protected Status) program that has provided relief for migrants affected by natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, and he recently sent 5,600 American troops to the border in anticipation of migrant caravans coming north.

Trump has used the power of the presidency (issuing executive orders, mobilizing troops, commanding media attention) to exert enormous influence in framing the terms of the debates over immigration.  He has used fear and racist rhetoric to demonize migrants – and to reduce discourse to its lowest common denominator.

That is why, in forwarding any policy proposal (e.g. a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11.1 million undocumented people), it’s essential to keep expanding the terms of the debate:  to call out the racial opportunism behind Trump’s scapegoating and to tease out the deeper values at stake.  I, for one, have seen the enormous human and economic toll of detaining immigrants in my visits to people warehoused at California’s Adelanto Detention Center:  people incarcerated for no other reason than that they had been seeking refuge from violence, persecution, or extreme poverty.  I’ve also seen people return to productive lives, or enter new ones, when they’ve had the grace or good fortune to be released into the community.

In her groundbreaking book, Our Declaration:  A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), Harvard scholar Danielle Allen forcefully argued that the Declaration of Independence called for both freedom and political equality, an equality “entailed in sharing ownership of public life and in co-creating our common world.”  Her argument acknowledged the enormous gaps between that ideal and historical realities – but it also looked to the Declaration as a template for inclusiveness and democratic culture.

In marking a shift of legislative power, the midterm elections have raised hopes that a politics of fear and exclusion can be vigorously countered.  A task ahead is to continue affirming the essential role of immigration and inclusion in maintaining the vibrancy and vitality of the nation’s democratic experiment.

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