How we can — and must — build consensus on immigration
© Greg Nash

For many of us, our family histories include name changes. An official who couldn’t pronounce a name; a new name to escape persecution or death; or, a name that sounded more “American.”

This is what those before us did.

We aren’t angry about their decision. In fact, we talk about their decision with pride that our people survived. They made the decisions they had to. Their decisions led to us.

More than that, their decisions created a national identity that was defined by hope, opportunity, freedom. It was defined by immigrants.

Today, our national identity is defined by fear, anger, a sense of scarcity.

Over the last few years, our nation that once welcomed and recruited those who aspired to greater things – to new beginnings - has become insular and more closed off to the world. We’re quite literally, according to the new mission statement of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, no longer a “nation of immigrants.”

Federal immigration policy changes since January 2017 back that up: turning away asylum-seekers and refugees, separating families, eliminating enforcement priorities, slashing legal immigration, the list goes on and on. 

For the hundreds of thousands of human beings stranded outside -- or removed from -- the United States, changing their name won’t help them. At this moment, it is hard to say what will. 

The environment requires us to be on defense. Reacting to decisions, responding to crises.

And, more than that, the story we tell each other about immigration has fundamentally changed. Do we value immigrants and immigration any longer? Is it even possible to paint a constructive vision for American immigration in this polarized environment? 

In his new book, "Whiteshift," Eric Kaufmann writes, “National perceptions are far more important in shaping people’s views on immigration than local experiences.” He went on, “Our security and identity is arguably more dependent on the nation than the neighborhood. Nations inculcate an emotional attachment to myths and symbols much more than locales do.”

Or, as I would put it, Americans love the Maria or Mohammed they know. But remain terrified of the Maria or Mohammed they don’t know.

Without a coherent, constructive, national immigration story, polarizing immigration rhetoric defines America – even if our lived experiences do not.

When pressed, politicians triangulate their immigration messages against increasingly angry bases of political support. Leaving those in the middle with no place to go. 

Anger is not a national identity. Defensiveness about the past is not a constructive vision for the future.

Wherein lies an opportunity for civic leaders to lead the way on immigration.

Pastors, police chiefs, and business owners are filling the void – and their continued leadership will require courage. These men and women must advance a civil discourse, articulate the economic and social impacts of a changing country, understand how our border and legal immigration policies are connected, and craft a message on immigration that resonates with more and more Americans.

This isn’t work for the “blue” parts of the country.

We need to expand and deepen our work in rural and suburban communities, listening and learning from conservative and moderate voters. Meeting them where they are, but not leaving them there. 

We aren’t starting from scratch. Bridging divides on immigration at the local level is happening every day. The National Immigration Forum has convened more than 45 “living room conversations” in the past 18 months to bring people together at the local level, listen to their concerns and aspirations, and discuss solutions.   

But, while we continue this local work, we also need to focus our efforts nationally. America needs a compelling story in the 21st century about the merits of immigrants and immigration. One that cuts through polarization and tribalism.

A story that makes the case America is a special place where freedom and equality are cherished by all. That immigrants are giving back to the country, enriching our communities economically and socially, protecting Americans and American values, and, ultimately becoming Americans themselves.

It can be done. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans -  70 percent - believe immigration is good for the country. Indeed there is far more consensus when you talk to people on the ground, than when you watch pundits bickering on cable news.

Even after a difficult three years on immigration, one that has revealed the darker forces in our society, there is a path forward. America can remain a nation of laws and a nation of grace – we just need our elected leaders to step up.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of the 2017 book “There Goes the Neighborhood.”