How should Biden “restore the Soul of America,”as promised? He must stop viewing immigration reform as a political minefield and start seeing it as America’s best chance to realize its ideals and renew faith in its promise. This means being bold, frank, and action-oriented on an issue he has recently shrunk away from.
By William Harris '24; Photographs by Patrick Montero
“America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
—Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
When it comes to immigration, President Joe Biden is caught in the uncomfortable position of appearing two-faced. In what seems to be a bit of a political identity crisis, two split personalities have emerged: The Campaigner who promised to reverse Trump’s immigration policies and The Governor who merely ordered studies of them while allowing most to remain intact. The Campaigner said he wants “an immigration system that powers our economy and reflects our values,” but The Governor backtracked on his campaign pledge to increase Trump’s cap on refugees, and only reversed himself after an onslaught of criticism. According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s initial pleas for President Biden to raise the cap on refugees were met with an attitude of: “Why are you bothering me with this?” The Campaigner was in the “battle for the Soul of our Nation,” but The Governor has been content to adopt a defensive, cautious position — afraid of the political blowback if he were to deliver the crusade he promised, at least when it comes to immigration.
There is no reason to doubt The Campaigner’s sincerity in desiring immigration reform, but The Governor’s timidity and indecision in pursuing it full-throttle reveals a deep-seated problem: Biden seems to think it is safer to largely maintain the status quo than to challenge it. He appears to be following the conventional political wisdom, which suggests that immigration is a wedge issue, too controversial to prioritize and safer to avoid than confront.
Yet the reality says otherwise, that Biden doesn’t need to be so dovish on immigration action. Even one of Biden’s own pollsters thinks that “Democrats shouldn’t be scared of talking about immigration,” suggesting that “they may [actually] want to talk about it more.” The numbers tell the story here: the percentage of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration is nearing a record low, the percentage who believe that immigrants “mostly help” the economy is at a record high, and the percentage of Americans who agree that immigrants “strengthen [the] country with their hard work and talents” is also at an all-time high. Rather than being a dividing point, immigration can actually serve as an issue that brings the country closer together.
The Campaigner’s pitch on every issue, not just immigration, was to realize America’s ideals and restore the soul of the nation. Surely The Governor hasn’t forgotten that The Campaigner’s message was well-received; that the public agreed America’s soul needed saving. Surely The Governor is aware that the resonance of The Campaigner’s message stemmed from a long-held understanding among the downtrodden: that America has consistently been defined by the struggle to make its soul heard over the sounds of its own misdeeds. If The Governor wants to deliver the America he spoke of on the stump, he must listen to those who looked at The Campaigner with the most urgent sense of hope. Those striving to take part in the waning American Dream must be Biden’s lodestar, guiding his path toward the America he promised: a country with a soul that speaks loudly, that stands for noble ideas, and that acts upon its virtues.
There are perhaps none more downtrodden, none more urgently hopeful, than undocumented immigrants. Biden would be well-served to fight for their vision of what America could be. Many of them, brought to the United States as children, believe in America more than native-born Americans do. Immigrants like Miguel sing the soul of America, listening to Jazz and translating its notes into the values of a nation:
“I love to listen to jazz. Jazz is the greatest description of the US and of that attitude. Of keeping it cool and that rugged individualism, improvisation. I listen to jazz sometimes when I’m on the metro. And then another metro passes by and you’re listening to jazz and then you see the night, the lights, the cars moving by. It’s very inspirational [chuckles]… It’s about a guy with his instrument, just making it up as he goes… And it’s democratic, if you think about it, ‘cause everybody gets to speak in jazz, even the bass player… Some people just listen to the brass, but everybody has a story to tell. Everybody listens. Everybody has something to say. Everybody has a solo.”
Here, Miguel conveys the pluralism of the United States—a synthesis of individuality and collective cooperation, where personal expression is celebrated but common values are shared—through the passing windows of a subway and the lights of its moving cars, portals into others’ lives. Yet behind the attractive imagery of a philosopher’s imagination lies a dark irony: the metro where Miguel is listening to jazz and considering what makes America America is in Mexico City; he was deported after living in the United States for twenty years, having been brought to the U.S. at the age of eight.
Miguel’s story—collected as part of the oral history project Migration Encounters—is representative of a larger trend, where “returning migrants… are products of an American society that is forgetting its identity,” their deportations “importing to Mexico the American values of mutual respect, open-mindedness and generosity.”
Despite undocumented immigrants’ affection for America’s professed values and their desire to contribute to a country which they view as home, the inclusive words of America’s visionary national motto “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one,” have been cruelly undermined by the reality of millions of deportations over the past decade. And migrants like Miguel have something to say about it:
“What would I say? I would say that the [U.S.] is giving to Mexico human capital for free. Right? Giving human capital for free because of irrational politics… because of politics that might have some sort of racist undertones.”
Miguel’s observation hints at the shortsightedness of U.S. immigration policy. While immigrants have long been vital to the health of the U.S. economy, policy has fluctuated, and currently criminalizes border-crossing at a level that is discordant with the country’s demand for a growing labor force. Migration from Mexico to the United States used to be circular, with rates of in-migration stabilized by comparable rates of out-migration. Under this pattern, the U.S. was able to enjoy the benefits of migration from Mexico while Mexican migrants had greater ability to feasibly and voluntarily return as they saw fit. Now, however, the situation is different: the border has been militarized, resulting in a steep decline in out-migration and, because of this, a sharp increase in undocumented population growth. In other words, the “irrational politics” of the U.S. that Miguel referred to are exactly what is responsible for the creation of illegal immigration as a phemonenon. Because of “politics that might have some sort of racist undertones,” visas for permanent residency were axed in half and the once hundreds of thousands of temporary work visas were slashed to zero in the late 20th century. This criminalization of the migrant workforce, despite an increased demand for migrant labor, has allowed for undocumented immigrants to be more easily exploited, since they don’t enjoy the rights and protections of citizenship. As another migrant, Luis, explained:
“I just think that the U.S.— they don’t say it and it’s never going to be said—but immigration, illegal immigration in the United States is a business. They require that cheap labor. And right now the only thing that they are trying to do is just to balance things out the way they want it. Because illegal immigration is still going to be a thing, I think, forever because they need people to exploit.”
Understanding what Luis is saying here, one can see why the constant fact of border-crossing has never changed, since the demand for immigrant labor has remained strong. Yet the perception of crossing has changed—and with disastrous consequences. The illegality imposed by border-centric immigration policy has created a shadow workforce, unprotected by labor laws, and has caused undocumented immigrants to be treated as criminals by default, sometimes even resulting in the deportation of individuals without criminal records. The loss caused by their exploitation and deportation is tangible, removing individuals who once made America stronger through their collective impact.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, where Miguel once lived before being deported, undocumented immigrants contributed $80.1 million to federal taxes, $51.3 million to state and local taxes, and held $1.2 billion in spending power. Of course, such numbers can’t begin to capture the qualitative impact they made as individuals woven into the social fabric of their communities, nor their potential had they been able to stay. Miguel, well-versed in continental philosophy and literature, may have become a teacher or professor had he been given the opportunity to continue to live in the United States. Reading about returnees similar to Miguel, one is able to see how else undocumented immigrants could have contributed to American society. Laila might have become a marine biologist; Luis, an artist; Melani, a politician; Luisa, an oncologist, “to save [people’s lives].” These are the voices of civic-minded, self-identified Americans who were denied belonging in America. If Biden does not rectify the loss that such deportations have caused, he cannot be serious about fighting for the soul of America.
There is a solution that would allow individuals like Miguel, Luis, Laila, Melani, and Luisa to remain in the United States: a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country. The impact would be enormous: a country made whole, with millions brought out of the shadows and able to fully participate in American life. Providing such an option would be popular: most Americans support Biden’s proposal to legalize America’s undocumented population according to polls. Yet unfortunately, the ambitions of The Campaigner who pitched that plan on the stump have yet to align with the actions of The Governor who has the power to make it a reality. Immigration advocates have noticed Biden’s latency, and are asking him to “get back on offense” and fulfill his promises. Biden would be well-served to listen, since he can make immigration a winning issue politically. But he will not achieve results on immigration—or restore faith in America’s promise—through cautious, carefully-worded backtracks, reversals, and evasions delivered by his unwavering Press Secretary, Jen Psaki.
Biden wants a unifying political issue. Ideally, perhaps, an issue where labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce share views, where public opinion is largely supportive, and where answers to questions about America’s most fundamental values are at stake. Immigration is that issue. Comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented is the solution, and to more than one issue, as America’s declining birthrate urgently calls for an influx of new Americans. Biden should choose to prioritize immigration as America’s primary source of unity and strength, as the country’s national motto suggests it should be, and put the weight of action behind those ancient yet neglected words. He must find the courage to summon an American reality that corresponds to the American ideal. If he does, perhaps then the United States will begin to resemble the America that Langston Hughes imagined: “The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be— / the land where every man is free.” Perhaps then we will find the soul of America restored. And perhaps then we can pick up the shattered fragments of the American Dream and see it made whole again: out of many, one.”