Anti-Immigrant America: The shadow pandemic of our era

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Since the early 1600s, America has inspired many motivated immigrants to arrive on her shores. Millions of people have flocked to this country in search of economic opportunity, religious freedom, political liberty and academic success. Last year, when my family and I moved here from India, we found ourselves part of this vibrant, multi-ethnic community of people who have found their home in the U.S. Since my brother and I came here as minors, our formative experiences have included our struggles of adapting to a new culture and crafting an Asian American racial identity for ourselves. In addition to that, like everyone else in the world, my family grappled with the uncertainty and fear of a global pandemic. 

This year got a lot worse for us when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to deport international students currently residing in the country taking online-only course loads in the fall, just a few weeks before the beginning of the semester. Even though the regulations were amended after several prominent schools threatened to sue I.C.E., it threw my family and several other international students and future immigrants into a panic. In the midst of a global pandemic and wide transportation shutdowns, it was cruel to announce such radical immigration reform. 

What purpose did these regulations serve anyway, except to inconvenience one million foreign students? Foreign students are already penalized for abusing their visa status under normal circumstances (for example, they are banned from working off-campus jobs). How is that going to change under the pandemic? During such difficult times, are we likely to see a wave of international students arrive on our shores, just to take advantage of a faltering American education system and an economy with a record high unemployment rate? 

To add insult to injury, foreign students contribute $45 billion dollars to the US economy, create 23% of the billion dollar startups in the U.S., and are a significant portion of America’s innovators and thought leaders. Many pay full tuition in the schools they study in and contribute extensively to campus life and culture. Forcing such an active, contributing part of American society to choose between endangering their lives by living on college campuses or enduring dangerous conditions by attempting to travel back to their home countries was incredibly unethical. These regulations, though temporary, also added to the existing climate of fear and uncertainty by placing international students at risk midway through the fall semester if colleges choose to shut down due to a second wave of the coronavirus. 

These ICE regulations followed President Trump’s recent executive order to temporarily halt immigration and to stop the approval of new temporary work visas, including H-1Bs for foreign techies, H-2Bs for low-skilled non-agricultural work, J visas for summer jobs, and L visas for intra-company transfers. Officials have said that this ban could prevent 525,000 immigrants from entering the US, just by the end of the year. These proclamations by the Trump administration were worrisome, and should lead to a national discourse on immigration, and the unfortunate propensity for American politicians to use immigrants as pawns to further their agenda. 

To add insult to injury, foreign students contribute $45 billion dollars to the US economy, create 23% of the billion dollar startups in the U.S., and are a significant portion of America’s innovators and thought leaders.

Anti-immigrant sentiments have been a mainstay in vitriolic American political rhetoric for many years now, from activists on the far Christian right supporting Patrick Buchanan’s fight for an immigration moratorium and a ‘Buchanan Fence’, to Trump’s recent use of the pandemic to justify morally objectionable election stunts. In the recent RNC convention, Trump pandered to his pro-legal immigration base by exploiting the naturalization ceremonies of five erstwhile immigrants from India, Sudan, Bolivia, Lebanon and Ghana for national television. He did this even though his government has already enabled the incredible backlogs and restrictive executive orders that continue to prevent thousands of immigrants from achieving stability in this country by becoming citizens. Unsurprisingly, this use of immigrants as political props by an anti-immigration administration was also illegal. 

Conservatives who angrily claim they are only against illegal immigration because they support Trump’s belief that unauthorized immigrants “infest our country” should reconsider their position after learning about this administration’s blatant disregard for legal immigrants who pay their taxes, follow the rules and contribute to our economy and culture. Their arguments only strengthen my idealistic dream to achieve bipartisan political consensus on how America treats immigrants, and to help secure the stability and livelihoods of 13.4% of our population. An honest conversation about immigration is long overdue in this country. 

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