How to Talk About Trump’s Immigration Policies with Your Anti-Immigrant Friends and Family

(Photo: July 2, 2018 Time Magazine Cover)

Seventeen months ago, our nation cried out in horror as the Trump-Pence administration gleefully issued its first Muslim travel ban. This week, many of us are deeply disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the anti-Muslim animus. What’s interesting in the decision is that the Court refused to comment on the soundness of the policy, leaving us to question whether they too – all of them, not just the four Justices who rejected the policy’s Islamophobia – see that the travel ban is just one spoke in the anti-immigrant wheel. NEWSFLASH: we, immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants, do. Admittedly, even in our own communities – whether over the dinner table, in temple or church, or leaning over one another at the local bar – there’s still some disbelief and opposition to the fact that we are living with a bigoted, anti-immigrant government. And it’s led to some very difficult conversations with family and friends alike.

For most of humanity,  the past seven weeks have been gut-wrenching as the world watched the escalation of our government’s xenophobic immigration policies, from rejecting domestic abuse and gang violence as reasonable grounds for asylum to instituting “zero-tolerance,” upholding travel bans targeting specific religious groups, and separating migrant families. This administration separated and detained 2,000 migrant children, some as young as three months old. Videos and photos of the prison-like conditions of the detention centers and audio clips of children screaming and crying for their parents is as heartbreaking as it gets.

While we wait for more answers from this administration, tensions have been rising with friends and family who may have strong opinions about immigration or agree with the “zero-tolerance” policy. Even more alarming, is that this latest demonstration of xenophobia does little to deter the growing wedge between naturalized citizens and permanent residents from our communities who’ve “made it” and those still on the outside yearning for asylum and a better life.

For many of us, this maelstrom stirs up old debates of comprehensive immigration reform; reignites insidious racial formations like the Model Minority Myth, the toxic and false dichotomy of “good” vs “bad” immigrants and brown folks,  and the complexity of race within the American Dream; and our own families’ immigration journeys. The dissonance and lack of empathy between those who’ve “made it” and those who haven’t is not a rarity among naturalized citizens. In fact, it’s something many of us New Americans – naturalized citizens as well as the native-born children and grandchildren of immigrants – are forced to reckon with and negotiate often.  But if we’re going to get anywhere productive and bring our country back from the brink of toxic nationalism, here are some top immigration misconceptions and how to talk about them, whether in the days to come or ahead of the worldwide #FamiliesBelongTogether protests tomorrow, June 30.

1. “Why are you still mad? Didn’t Trump end family separation?”

Donald Trump literally started it. On May 7, the Trump administration rolled out its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy— prosecuting all those who illegally cross the border, even those seeking asylum at designated ports of entry, and separating migrant children from families as one mode of deterrence.

The Trump administration took great lengths to both defend its policy of separating migrant families and deny it was even happening.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the policy by quoting the Bible. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lacked empathy during a press briefing about the policy, and later let Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson join a joint press briefing, which led Nielson to deny the policy even existed. Amid this entire administrative fiasco, President Trump lied about his own policy, instead displacing blame and tweeting that the policy was created by the Democrats.

Capitulating to the overwhelming national and international attention, last Wednesday, Trump signed an unnecessary executive order to “undo” his own family separation policy. But let’s be clear – his executive order does NOTHING to remedy this administration’s moral turpitude, xenophobia, and our immigration crisis, or its zero tolerance policy. The executive order ends family separation, only to substitute it with promises to cage families together in overflowing detention centers. Moreover, there are still so many questions as to what’s going to happen to the children who have already been separated and whether they will be reunified with their families, as well as the prevailing legal and human rights issues of detaining children for more than 20 days.

And while we’re at it, let’s say add this to the pyre of outrage: DUE PROCESS APPLIES TO ALL, even – and especially – those detained at the border in an attempt to access a better life or reunite with one’s family.

2. “They are taking our benefits and using taxpayer money.”

I’m sorry – what now? Who’s “they”? As with most facets of our rich democracy, people don’t really understand how they got to where they are and the tremendous resources that were available to them in their pursuit of opportunity. In this particular case, beneficiaries might not recognize – or have forgotten – their preferential treatment and “luck of the draw” in a totally byzantine immigration system. So, for these friends, aunties, uncles, and parents we say:

According to the Center of American Progress, immigrants pay more into the U.S. economy than they take out. In 2013, immigrants, both authorized and undocumented, added $1.6 trillion to total U.S. GDP. Moreover, undocumented immigrants contribute $11.64 billion in state and local taxes each year. The Social Security Administration estimates that undocumented immigrants contribute $13 billion in payroll taxes annually, which helps strengthen the social security system.

In other words, undocumented immigrants do pay taxes. What they don’t do is access public assistance. Undocumented immigrants and even some authorized immigrants are barred from most social services; thus, they are paying to support benefits they cannot receive.

What is actually wasting taxpayer money is detaining immigrants. The United States spends $1.84 billion detaining migrants and the administration has consistently allocated more funding to Homeland Security to increase border control security measures and ICE deportation officers. At the end of the day, taxpayers are paying more money for Trump’s terrorizing immigration policies. We should be integrating – not detaining, restricting, or deporting – people who are eager to contribute to our economy.

3. “Entry to the United States is a privilege. The government has the right to discriminate against who gets to be American.”

True, a nation-state has the right to regulate its borders and ensure its national security. However, that isn’t at question here. Instead, we challenge the racial coding of privilege in America.

The United States of America was founded upon the everlasting principle that “all men are created equal.” Adjusting for the heteronormative language and the irrefutable exclusion of certain persons for literal centuries (see the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Expatriation Act of 1907), the very premise of the US and its democracy is equality. Moreover, when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it abolished annual quotas that restricted immigrant arrivals according to race and national origin. Now, this administration is going back on our hard-fought legacy of equality and diversity.

There’s also an important side note here to just how central immigration – whether forced in the case of slavery or voluntary – is to the historical fabric of this country. From refugees seeking religious asylum on the Mayflower to entrepreneurs eager to turn a profit in the fertile New World (and subsequently committing genocide upon the First Nations), there is no real high road toward becoming American. Rather, participating in the American narrative is to remember these missteps and atrocities while actively striving towards the evolution of a democratic society toward something better, more robust, and more inclusive than its past. After all, America is an idea, not a race.

4. “We worked hard to get here. We came here the right way.”

Seeking asylum at a port of entry is one of the many correct ways to come here. Fleeing from violence and a government unwilling to protect you or overzealous in its persecution of your identity are valid reasons to come here and petition for refuge. Just as family reunification, school, and job opportunities are valid reasons to emigrate and seek soft landing elsewhere, but especially in this land of plenty that promises opportunity if you’re hungry or scrappy enough. (Deep, calming breaths)

So, let’s pivot and focus on the need for more empathy.  As President Obama said:

Imagine if you’d been born in a country where you grew up fearing for your life, and eventually the lives of your children. A place where you finally found yourself so desperate to flee persecution, violence, and suffering that you’d be willing to travel thousands of miles under cover of darkness, enduring dangerous conditions, propelled forward by that very human impulse to create for our kids a better life.”

Yes, we are long overdue for comprehensive immigration reform. Yes, our current system is broken but it’s only getting more broken under this administration. Don’t let the anti-immigrant rhetoric fool you. Every immigration experience is unique. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to come to another country. What is important is to acknowledge our privilege in how we, our parents, or grandparents immigrated to the US. Nearly every immigration story begins the same way—yearning for a shot at the American Dream, but that yearning should never come at the expense of shutting others out, tearing families apart, or caging neighbors in search of a safer tomorrow.  We’ve walked that road before and it should never be revisited again.