It’s no secret why people on both sides of the Atlantic have gotten upset about immigration.
While politicians like Donald Trump have expertly identified and channeled people’s fears in their campaigns, scholars like Demetrios Papademetriou have been studying and laying out the reasons for years. In 2012, Papademetriou, a longtime scholar at the Migration Policy Institute, listed the five main perceptions — not necessarily justified — leading to anxiety about immigrants in destination countries:
1. New immigrants erode our norms and identity.
2. Change is happening too fast.
3. Immigrants are an economic burden.
4. The corrupt government won’t protect our sovereignty.
5. Immigrants threaten public safety.
When Papademetriou wrote the paper, it applied to just a few European countries. But in the last couple of years, these worries have come to dominate debate in the United States. And now, people like U.S. Rep. Martha McSally of Tucson are preparing to codify those fears into law.
McSally was one of four Republican members of the U.S. House who last week revealed a bill they’ve written to try to resolve some of the big debates in immigration, a bill that won President Trump’s support. The chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said at a Wednesday news conference, “It’s a broken immigration system. We’re trying to fix it, to bring in the best and the brightest into America.”
But comments like Trump’s last week, disparaging immigrants from poor countries inhabited by dark-skinned people, show there is also a deeper lack of faith that people from these countries can really become American and productive. It doesn’t matter that reality has proven this perception wrong.
“The United States is de facto the most multicultural of states,” Papademetriou told me in an interview last year. “We are exceptional. What unites us is a set of ideas.” That’s similar to what Sen. Lindsey Graham is reported by the New York Times to have told Trump last week: “America is an idea, not a race.”
There is a vein of mistrust in that concept, though, that flows through both Trump’s comments and the bill McSally and company are sponsoring.
For me, one of the most galling aspects is the fear of “chain migration.” This phrase, undoubtedly focus-group-tested for provoking a fear response, actually should be called “extended family migration.”
It’s what brought people like Saji Vettiyil to this country from an underdeveloped place with no sewage system, and turned them into productive Americans.
McSally said under their bill, no longer would immigrants be allowed to sponsor the entry of anyone outside of their nuclear families from their home countries.
“We’re eliminating parents, brothers, sisters,” she said. “Spouses and minor children are protected.”
In that sense, she would eliminate people like Vettiyil.
He’s a criminal-defense attorney and Sahuarita resident whom I’ve known for years because of his work on cases in Nogales. But I never knew his story, except that he is an immigrant from India, until Friday. Then I posted a request on Facebook to hear from people whose families were involved in so-called “chain migration.”
Vettiyil grew up in a rural area of southern India, he told me, in a home that had no electricity or running water and was lighted by kerosene lamps. His parents had married as teens. They weren’t poor in the local context, though. The family farmed rice and had enough to eat. He went to a Catholic school.
Vettiyil had an uncle who was a Ph.D. biochemist and, in an era when the United States needed more scientists and doctors, immigrated, with his pathologist wife. They ended up running a medical laboratory in Nogales.
That’s when the purported evil of chain migration intervened. In 1979, Vettiyil’s uncle agreed to sponsor Vettiyil’s mother in an application for immigration. She was approved. Right now, by the way, the applications for these visas are so backlogged that the U.S. is processing applications filed in 2003 by people in Vettiyil’s mother’s position — Indian adult siblings of U.S. citizens.
Vettityil and his sister, ages 17 and 15, arrived in 1981, flying into Tucson from New York to start their new lives. First, he worked odd jobs in Nogales, then got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix and eventually became an attorney. So did his sister.
“The only thing we ever took was student loans, and we paid all that money back,” he said. “The banks made good money off us. We were chain migrants.”
Not only that, they were from a poor place the president might deem a “shithole.” And they had no particular merit that would prove they would benefit the country economically, which is the objective behind McSally’s bill and Trump’s policy. Still, they became productive Americans.
The bill that McSally and the others have proposed would keep people like Vettiyil out. Our country would be without an accomplished family that has contributed wherever they landed.
He isn’t some kind of outlier, either. Immigrants start businesses at a higher rate than multi-generational Americans and often have more of an urgent drive to thrive.
That doesn’t mean our laws shouldn’t change at all. The number of immigrants in the United States right now is at a record high — about 44 million. But as a proportion of the population, immigrants still make up less of this country’s residents than they did in much of the time from 1870 to 1920, at 13.5 percent.
Immigrant advocates like local attorney Mo Goldman say that even the much-maligned diversity visa lottery program makes sense and has proved largely beneficial to the country. But he is resigned to the idea that the program, which gives out 50,000 green cards per year on a lottery basis to people who qualify as immigrants but don’t have particularly high skills, is doomed.
If Democrats want to fight for DACA enrollees and other immigration priorities, they may have to sacrifice the diversity visa lottery.
So it’s understandable why the fear and anger about the large number of immigrants persists — there really are a lot of them these days, many coming from countries we’re not as used to in Africa and Asia. And that will undoubtedly lead to some changes in the law. But there’s no reason to lose faith that immigrants like Vettiyil can still become as American as the poor, uneducated Europeans who poured into the country during the Industrial Revolution.
To believe otherwise is to give in to a fear that is as unjustified as it is understandable.