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The Immigration Debate Must Always Focus on the American Dream

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By Isaac Willour

19 years ago, an Indian single mother looked down at her baby boy and made one of the hardest decisions she would ever make. Though living in a developing country, she knew she still couldn’t give her son the life she so desperately wanted him to have. Tears no doubt streaming down her face, she gave up her beloved child for adoption. She never saw him again. 

I don’t know much about my birth mother, except that her heartbreaking sacrifice allowed me to have a life she could never have imagined. Though my adoption into America is in many ways a closed chapter in my life, I believe my somewhat unusual origin story gave me an interest in a question inseparable to the American story— what does it mean to become an American?

The path to becoming an American has historically been a question of principles and policy. Even in the Framers’ time, there was a tension between the idea of sovereignty and support for immigration. Since then, that tension has both increased and become intertwined in America’s partisan circus. We’re losing the ability to view the immigration debate as a question of principled policy, preferring our tribalistic tendencies and partisan battle lines.

I’m barely old enough to remember when Barack Obama told us that the tradition of legal American immigration made us a nation with “limitless possibilities.” I remember when, less than two years later, Donald Trump remarked that the days of citizenship for illegal immigrants were over.

Yet the climate surrounding those statements was anything but similar. Obama’s executive actions on immigration were lauded as an “important first step”, while Trump’s temporary restrictions in response to COVID-19 were lambasted as part of a “racist, anti-immigrant, white nationalist agenda.” 

The divide among the American people was hardly different, falling along tragically partisan lines. Varying support for the proposed relaxation of immigration policy hinged on whether Obama’s name was attached to it. Varying support for Trump’s policies was interpreted as Americans standing up to his allegedly “persistently racist remarks and xenophobic actions.”

We’ve witnessed the immigration debate change, but less in accordance with principled policy and more on whoever happens to be authorizing policy from the White House at the time. Further effecting this change are fringe groups operating on principles of unfactual self-interest. These factions hail from both sides of the political aisle– if we are ever to re-center the immigration debate to one of principles and policy, both the right and the left must be willing to do some house cleaning.

First, the political right should distance itself from the immigration narrative of its most extreme factions. Republican lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and David Gosar have supported proposed legislation such as H.R. 1883 calling for a four-year moratorium on all immigration. Greene’s America First Caucus party platform voices support for vaguely termed “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political tradition” — a phrase instilling far more caution than confidence. Such factions do not represent the ideals of the Framers, the views of most Americans nor the true meaning of the American story. The claim that America’s tradition of legal immigration has ended is a denial of a vital tenet of our nation’s history and should be dismissed as such.

Across the aisle, the political left needs to similarly disavow the narrative of prominent Democrat legislators. Figures such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who accused the American immigration tradition of being “built on a carceral framework” and Ilhan Omar, who slammed construction of a border wall as “xenophobic and racist.” This narrative says that the mere preservation of national sovereignty is rooted in classist and racist discrimination, and ought to be fervently criticized as antithetical to America’s values.

We must reclaim the original spirit of the immigration debate. There is a balance between moratoriums and open borders, but the search for that balance is not purely political. It’s an endeavor to re-center this debate around principles and policy. It’s the struggle to respect both the incredible price paid for our sovereignty and the incredible risk taken by thousands to reach these shores and buy into the American story of liberty. 

18 years ago, the plane carrying me touched down on American soil. Today, I realize that the greatness of the American story lives within us just as it lived within the gates of Ellis Island and the blood-soaked fields at Gettysburg. It is a story far too great to be replaced by the narrative of our most extremist partisan factions.

Isaac Willour is a freshman at Grove City College and a member of the editorial board for the GCC Journal of Law & Public Policy. He is a journalist for The College Fix and serves as an executive scholar for the American Enterprise Institute.

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