Sixty years ago, John F. Kennedy presented his vision of an America proud to be a ‘nation of immigrants’. His campaign helped shape the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, opening America’s doors to the world. But in 2018, in the age of a very different President, immigration is presented as a problem, a threat and an imposition upon American generosity. Immigration policy is focused on exclusion and separation – the building of walls, issuing of travel bans, separating of children from their parents.
I’ve studied immigration and refugee issues for over a decade. Then, in 2014, I became an American immigrant myself. As debates on immigration in the US became increasingly fraught, I found myself wanting to understand better how immigration has shaped – and is continuing to shape – American identity. So, in March 2018, I left San Francisco and spent the next two months driving cross-country to New York City. Along the way, I spoke to dozens of people of every political persuasion and background, listening to their thoughts about immigration and what it means to be an American citizen today.
This trip was both professional and deeply personal. I am a very privileged American immigrant: I am white; I speak English; I have a green card; I am a citizen of not one but two countries. But even though I often pass as an American – at least until I open my mouth – I am not. And in 2018, it is no longer clear how I fit into the stories the current government tells about who belongs here.
As I travelled across America, I asked everyone I met for their thoughts on immigration, recording both their voices and my own reflections. And in visiting towns and cities over the country, I discovered a broader immigration story. A story less about vicious political minorities (however much power they might wield) and more about everyday communities. A story less about hostility, and more about pragmatism and hope.
I believe we need to build on these narratives, if the hostility at the heart of current American immigration policy is to be reversed. Immigration cannot be reduced to paperwork, quotas and polling. We need to tell the whole history of America’s immigration story. We need to focus on how immigration affects not just multicultural metropolises but small towns and rural economies. And we need to reconfirm the civic heart of American identity, as well as recognising how much work needs to be done to make equal citizenship a reality.