Nwokocha: Biden must act with speed to fix Trump immigration damage

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An unidentified man taking the oath of allegiance at U.S. naturalization swearing in ceremony at Gettysburg,PA. Photo: Bill Dowling/Shutterstock

Americans elected Mr. Joseph Biden as the next president of the United States.  This is a remarkable feat, only the tenth time in U.S. history a sitting president has contested and failed to secure a second term. Underneath this result, however, is a disquieting epiphany: that more than 70 million Americans, for whatever reason, voted for a second installment of the Trump administration.

As an immigrant, the election results provide insight into the soul of my adopted country.  It reveals how complex the country is, and how far we are from realizing the dreams of a more perfect union and equality.  That Trump received more than 70 million votes is stunning; that the election was even close is unbelievable.

It was a surprise that Mr. Trump was elected president in 2016. It stunned most people in my familial, professional and community circles.  Politicians and pundits offered various explanations for the results.  Most of the explanations came down to a common denominator: Trump was different from other politicians.  In the immigrant communities, Trump had his supporters, some because of promises of fiscal discipline; but a huge number voted for him because they believed he was a Christian and that his faith would guide his administration.  But not even these voters expected the wrecking ball he took to immigration.

As an African American, immigrant and immigration attorney, the result of the 2020 elections left me wondering if Trump voters live in the same America that I live in.  Having lived through the traumatic events of 2020, I thought there was no way Mr. Trump stood a chance of winning.  We witnessed a country throw aside its immigration ideals; we watched a president promote racism and stoke the embers of hatred for four years; we watched an administration (supported by white evangelical Christians) cast away biblical injunctions of Exodus 22: 21 about how to treat foreigners-not to wrong, mistreat or oppress them,- and replace it with draconian measures, including official policies of separating children from their parents; we watched our government ban people from entering the United States solely because of their faith; we watched our government refuse to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; we watched our government repeatedly attack legal immigration.  The list goes on and on.  Consistent with its professed collective ideals, I expected this country to resoundingly repudiate Trump and his enablers.  Though he lost, the margin wasn’t what I thought it would be.  Many of his enablers in government won and continue to stay in power.  This was no repudiation; it feels like far too weak a protestation in the face of utter depravity.

All the pro-immigration forces have a lot of work ahead.  We have to reach out to our fellow Americans, especially those outside our pro-immigrant circles, to educate them on the value of immigration.  According to an August 2020 Report by Pew Research Center, “a majority of Americans have positive views about immigrants.  About two-thirds of Americans (66%) say “immigrants strengthen the country because of their ‘hard work and talents,’ while about a quarter (24%) say immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care.”  Broken down by party affiliation, for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 88% think immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents, and just 8% say they are a burden.  Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 41% say immigrants strengthen the country, while 44% say they burden it.  Clearly there is a large portion open to persuasion.

We have to create avenues where the immigration-hostile American has the opportunity to meet immigrants.  A 2019 American Immigration Council Report found that native-born Americans hold more positive views about unauthorized immigrants or “pro-immigrant sentiments” if they have friendly interactions with immigrants.  Those of us who still believe in the immigration ideals of this country should use every opportunity to increase these contacts, and also to promote positive experiences.  Our task is to break down the barriers.

This will require the conscientious efforts of everyone.  We all must accept our common humanity; this is a non-negotiable factor that must prevail in any discussion of “how we got here.”  People of faith have an opportunity to lead in this endeavor.

The task for the incoming administration is daunting.  Having seen the type of damage the Trump presidency inflicted on immigrant communities; the Biden-Harris administration must act with all deliberate speed.  The life and future of immigrants depend on it.  Trump demonstrated that the presidency could do a lot of damage through its executive power.  Thankfully, some of this harm can be immediately addressed by the new administration.  Biden-Harris must use executive power for good.  Ideally, the president-elect would work with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.  However, based on experience, and the projected partisan divide in Congress, the incoming administration must be realistic in its expectations and act accordingly.   For instance, the Biden-Harris administration should consider the set of proposals from AILA that seek not only to ameliorate the damage done by the Trump administration, but to improve our immigration system generally.  All regressive executive actions must be rescinded, and the welcoming lamp of America must be re-lit.

The message must be clear: America is once more open to the world, and it will return to being the beacon of hope and example to the rest of the world.  No more will our nation vilify immigrants.

About Paschal O. Nwokocha

Paschal O. Nwokocha is a principal at Paschal Nwokocha & Chukwu Law Offices, a boutique immigration firm based in Minneapolis, MN. An immigrant from Nigeria, Paschal is passionate about how the immigration law affects immigrants and their families. He served as Chair of the AILA Minnesota/Dakota Chapter, chaired the AILA African Diaspora Interest Group;, and currently is a member of the Nebraska Service Center committee.

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