President Trump has expanded his immigration ban to affect vital U.S. industries like tech, manufacturing and hospitality through the end of 2020. The latest executive order signed on June 22 further restricts immigration, following a less drastic measure made in April. This will slow our recovery with states now reopening, but it's no surprise. His platform of cracking down on immigration has been unflinchingly consistent. He has blocked immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, dismantled our refugee resettlement program, separated migrant children from their parents and attempted to end DACA.
But here’s the ugly truth that Americans forget: Blaming immigrants for bringing diseases, taking our jobs, making us unsafe and threatening American culture has been part of our politics since the country’s founding. It doesn’t matter that none of these impending immigration disasters have come to pass. Or that immigration is America’s greatest global competitive advantage. With each generation, new leaders claim that today’s immigrants are somehow different — less able to assimilate, more likely to take our jobs or commit crimes. And we believe them.
So why do we keep getting duped?
Both the social science literature and forward-looking leaders in deeply conservative parts of the country have an answer: It’s a mistake to focus just on President Trump’s most anti-immigrant rhetoric. We also need to focus on the millions of Americans — and not just the most xenophobic ones — who think the president may have a point.
As a country, we’re broadly in favor of immigration, but we’re also incredibly nervous about changes to our culture and our communities. When we’re unsure of what to believe, we look first to our local networks. Studies show that when we’re given information that contradicts what our friends and neighbors believe, we actually double down and become more strident. The more facts we throw at our opponents, the more polarized we become.
So, fighting xenophobia must start from the bottom up. Communities must see for themselves that immigration makes their local society stronger. And welcoming immigrants must be an affirmative choice that they make. When that happens, immigrants aren’t some “other” that is threatening. “They” become part of “us.”
New American Economy (NAE), the organization I represent, set out to test this theory over the last decade in some of the most challenging environments in the most conservative pockets of the country. NAE went where the challenge was greatest, to the communities in fast-changing states that had recently experienced a spike in newcomers and where studies have shown that intolerance is highest. In each of these communities, NAE helped local leaders take immigration and integration into their own hands. The successes show a model that should give the rest of the country both hope and a road map.
A prime example is the conservative Iowa district, which had been represented for 17 years by Congress’s most stridently anti-immigrant member: Steve King. To change the tenor of the debate at home, local residents took the initiative and formed a group called One Siouxland to “welcome and support every Siouxland resident” and help all “understand, appreciate and embrace our changing demographics.” Together with New American Economy, One Siouxland wrote a strategic integration plan to establish community resource centers, a leadership development academy, small business loans and dozens of other programs and policies focused on giving underrepresented populations a seat at the table. Most recently, One Siouxland used locally produced art to host dialogues between Trump voters and non-Trump voters about American identity. This welcoming attitude has allowed more businesses of all types to invest there, including some of the food processing plants now keeping our food supply chain functioning. And now a district that was the stronghold of the anti-immigrant movement has said enough, and the business community successfully backed an opponent who recently defeated King in the Republican primary election.
Another example is Salt Lake County, Utah, in a congressional district that is more conservative than 80 percent of all districts in the country. A decade ago, the Mormon Church, the business community and civic and municipal leaders adopted a “Utah Compact” based on principles of inclusion. They opened resource centers in immigrant neighborhoods and made community and civic boards more diverse. The conservative Deseret News Editorial Board has praised these efforts, and the results in and around Salt Lake have been dramatic. The Utah Population Committee credited immigrants in the state’s significant population growth over the last decade. Previously deserted areas of downtown grew bustling. Tourist spending increased by 15 percent in just two years, injecting more than $300 million more into the local economy and supporting thousands of local jobs. The entire community got on board, and in 2018 an unabashedly pro-immigration candidate, Ben McAdams, won election to the U.S. House.
Similar stories are being written by local leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and in many other communities across the country.
Welcoming immigrants — from doctors, nurses, and caregivers to farm hands, delivery drivers, and entrepreneurs — is far more the solution to our problems than the cause of them. But unless we’re willing to make more local communities more welcoming, these facts won’t matter.
Xenophobia won’t end with the pandemic, or with new leadership in the White House and Congress. It will end when we work together to break down the barriers that divide “them” from “us.” Dozens of communities have come together to chart their own welcoming path. Yours can too.
Jeremy Robbins is the executive director of New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to bridging the political and cultural divide around immigration.