What Does It Mean To Be A 'Nation Of Immigrants'?

Feb 28, 2018

For immigrants, this past week has been a doozy: First, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services took the words "nation of immigrants" out of its mission statement. Then, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrants held in detention are not entitled to bail hearings. The Court also declined to to take up a case that deals with the DACA program, sending it back to the Ninth Circuit.

All this came after weeks of debate about who's allowed to come to, and stay in, the country, as Congress tries to draft a new immigration bill. Among the proposals on the table is the 50-year-old provision that allows family members to sponsor relatives.

This week on the podcast we explored how one family is handling the stress of decisions and policies like these while facing a mix of immigration-related challenges. In the Gonzalez family, some members are covered by DACA, some aren't, and one child is a U.S. citizen. You can listen to their story here.

But we also wanted to know more about the bigger picture of where immigrants fit into this nation and how that might be changing.

And so we reached out to an expert who can identify with the Gonzalezes and millions of people like them. Hiroshi Motomura is an expert on refugee and immigration law, and teaches at UCLA Law School. But the subject isn't merely academic for him. He comes from a mixed-status family himself, and has spent decades researching, and living, the shifting fortunes of immigrants and their families.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What did growing up in a mixed status family look like for you?

My father was born in San Francisco, but he grew up in Japan. So he was a U.S. citizen by birth. My mother was born in Japan, so she has Japanese citizenship by birth. I was born in Japan. My family brought me to this country when I was 3 years old under a loophole, at a time when the laws were expressly, explicitly racially discriminatory.

My brother is six years younger than me, and he was born in the United States, so he had citizenship. So in my own family, my father's a U.S. citizen but really felt Japanese, my mother was a Japanese citizen who felt Japanese, I grew up in this country feeling very American but finding out as a young teenager that I had no citizenship at all.

I'll never forget the time my mother and brother and I went to visit relatives in Japan [when I was a young teen.] I had to travel on a document that can be given to refugees. I was a stateless person living in the United States.

So it's a lot of details, but I think it shows that in one family, we often have a people separated into different legal statuses by the accident of their birth. And yet functionally, in terms of how they relate to American society, even living in the same household, they're either identical, or separated only by generations.

Supporters of immigrants' rights have criticized President Trump for saying he wants to limit family-based immigration. These critics have compared his policy proposals with parts of the Immigration Act of 1924, which had a national origins quota, or the Chinese Exclusion Act. Is that a fair assessment?

There's a couple ways to think about the legislative proposals coming out of the White House. We've had a system for many years that has put a high value on family unity. So the proposals would seriously cut back on that.

What does that actually mean? Since 1965, we have family-based immigration playing a central role, as it always has, but a central role in a non-discriminatory system — at least as far as the legal categories are concerned. That's meant that we've really diversified who can come to this country.

So now, the administration is trying to cut that back. One way to think about that is to look at the consequences: This would really make it hard to immigrate from Latin America. You'd have cutbacks in immigration from Latin America, you'd have cutbacks from Asia. The proposals to cut back on the diversity lottery would cut off a significant amount of immigration from Africa. So at one level it looks like it's very neutral. But the fact is, in historical terms, it's really a rollback to the period from the 1920s until 1965.

How important is family-based immigration for the people who come to this country?

It's really been a consistent strand in American immigration history that families are the vehicle for integrating Americans into American society, and helping immigrants be productive members of American society. It's not enough to come to this country with a diploma. It's not enough to come with a particular skill set. You have to have people help you become part of American society. And many of the "immigrant success stories" we have are people who came with relatively few resources, or not necessarily stereotypically high education levels, but [succeeded] because there was a family standing behind them.

There are a lot of misconceptions about U.S. citizens sponsoring family members. Can you help explain the process?

In many mixed families, you have a younger child who is a U.S. citizen. And the rules say that when that citizen child turns 21, then the citizen child can sponsor or petition for their parents. But it's not as straightforward as all that. It's true that when the parents have the child turn 21, the child can file paperwork and the parents qualify to get into a category that allows them to get legal status. But there are a couple complications. One is that the sponsor needs to guarantee the financial support of himself and the parents.

The other thing is that just because you get into a line, it doesn't mean you can get legal status. The system is actually incredibly complicated, and there's talk about, Why don't you stand in line? And yet, we have situations where even people who qualify for a status find the going very difficult.

Looking at the system as a whole, we have an emphasis on employment-based immigration that pretty much requires that you have a college degree. And yet the economy seems to have a very great need for people who don't have a college degree, though many of them are actually very highly-skilled. And one of the reasons that in many of these families, the parents come without legal status is because the system has been set up in such a way that we, for several generations now, have tolerated, and even acquiesced, and to some extent invited people to come outside the law. Occasionally it becomes politically expedient to enforce the law harshly, and we express some shock that people are in the country working illegally.

And yet, that's the way the system has run for at least 50 years, and to some extent the last hundred years. Especially regarding workers from Latin America who have been essential to many industries, but for whom there's no actual line to stand in.

Historically, how has the United States treated immigrants?

I think the arc of American history has been one of generosity toward immigrants, punctuated with periods of retrogression, downright repression. That's been the flow.

And we see this actually in the fact that the people who are kind of being hard-line against immigration now are often the very people who would've been discriminated against in an earlier age.

So one can look at this as hypocrisy, or irony, but the fact of the matter is, it's also a sign that this country moves forward. And the people we discriminated against in an earlier generation, my God, they've become so American that they can actually discriminate against others.

How do you feel about USCIS taking the line "nation of immigrants" out of its mission statement?

Well, I think it's very troubling. The reality is, the United States is, and will continue to be, a nation of immigrants. I'm really focusing not on the possibility that one administration or one agency can change the nature of this country or the character of this country. But I'm focusing on what that means. And I think that it really means that the government is not really taking seriously the types of contributions that immigrants have made to this country. And I think the government is really adopting the posture of, You can only come to this country if you're going to jump through a lot of hoops. You're going to pay a lot of money. And it's going to be based on what you can do for us now. As in tomorrow. Or even today.

But I think many of the contributions that immigrants have made to this country have not been very obvious on Day 1. This is the many stories we have of people who came to this country either penniless or at least under modest circumstances, and really contributed and created jobs and created entire industries. And I think a lot of what I see in the removal of "nation of immigrants" is, are we not understanding the history of this country? We're being extremely short-sighted about what has made this country great.

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