Ali Noorani: Immigrants made America great — time to end four years of demonizing and denouncing them

This turning on each other needs to stop — for the benefit of us all

In body and spirit, America and Americans need to heal. We have endured a long and divisive election campaign and a coronavirus pandemic that has turned normal life upside down. And even before that, we have been divided on other matters, including when we or our ancestors came to the nation we proudly call the United States.

Sadly, we have seen immigrants demonized and denounced for the past four years. The United States has turned into the Divided States, splitting us along many lines. So much of our political debate tells us that someone, someplace, is taking something from us — and many people blame immigrants for many of our problems. Unfortunately, we are talking past each other at the precise time we need to be talking to each other.

This turning on each other needs to stop — for the benefit of us all.

BIDEN'S PICKS FOR TRANSITION TEAM THE LATEST SIGN OF A RADICALLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO IMMIGRATION

America’s defining characteristic is that we are a nation of immigrants. Whether you came to this country a year ago or your ancestors came here centuries before, nearly all of us have immigrant roots. Throughout our history that endurance, often in the face of nativism and hostility against “the other,” has been a source of our nation’s strength. It’s what made America great in the first place.

Today we see that greatness on the frontlines in medicine, food production and other essential work that native-born Americans and immigrants are doing side by side amid the pandemic. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we need to realize that it is in our mutual self-interest to accept that immigrants are a great asset.

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Immigrants are working alongside generations of Americans to take care of the sick. Foreign-born people make up 17 percent of the U.S. health care workforce, including 24 percent of direct-care workers and 28 percent of highly skilled professionals such as physicians and surgeons. Of the 351,600 undocumented workers in the health care industry, at least 42,000 are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

In small and rural counties, where there are only 82 physicians per 100,000 people — compared to urban counties that are served by over 200 physicians per 100,000 — over 14 percent of physicians are educated abroad. One is hard-pressed to identify a more essential worker than medical providers in rural America today. 

Keeping us fed are immigrants who represent 76 percent of all farmworkers, 42 percent of food packers and 20 percent of retail workers, including those in restaurants and grocery stores. Keep in mind that about 70 percent of the total U.S. farming labor force is undocumented, and over 55 percent have been living in the U.S. for more than 10 years.

Three in four undocumented workers — an estimated 5.5 million people — work in jobs the federal government considers to be "essential” to the nation’s critical infrastructure. Among these workers are an estimated 331,000 DACA recipients and 219,000 people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

But we also know that the immigrants in the clinics, the fields and the grocery stores are not the only ones who are offering hope.

Take, for example, Drs. Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, children of Turkish guest workers in Germany. Their company, BioNTech, is partnering with Pfizer on the experimental coronavirus vaccine we are all awaiting.

The companies made waves last week when they announced that the vaccine appeared to prevent about 95% of trial volunteers from contracting the disease COVID-19. Here in the U.S., Pfizer is headed by Albert Bourla, who hails from Greece.  Moderna’s founders and CEO are also immigrants.

To move forward and heal, we need to look back. For the vast majority of us, our family’s origin story is the movement of people. Voluntarily or involuntarily, the generations who came before us endured hardships to create homes, families and opportunities on American soil. Their sacrifice and perseverance are the legacy we carry forward. 

Honoring this legacy in a way that serves Americans and our nation’s critical needs is the opportunity that will be in front of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration after he takes office Jan. 20, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Of course, reversing the assault on immigration to the United States will not be easy. Fortunately, there is bipartisan support for executive actions and legislative changes that take advantage of the opportunities that come with immigrants and immigration.

New research from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that 79% of Republicans say immigrants are hardworking and 76% say they immigrants have strong family values. Among white evangelical Christians, more than half support a way for undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, to earn legal status and eventual citizenship.

To begin, the Biden administration and Congress need to address the situation of Dreamers and TPS recipients — temporarily extended through executive action and then permanently stabilized through legislation.

At the same time, Congress should include the bipartisan Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act in a COVID-19 relief bill. It would allow more immigrant doctors and nurses to help with coronavirus health treatment and provide an example of how to achieve bipartisan immigration reform that begins to address the green card backlog, supports family unity, and maximizes the number of visas going to workers by excluding family members from visa caps.

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Then Congress and the administration should set their sights higher. We have a long road to fixing our broken immigration system in a way that brings the country together and begins the hard work to heal our divides. But Americans of both parties and across faiths overwhelmingly recognize the immense contributions of immigrants and support a path to legal status and eventual citizenship.

As a nation and a citizenry, we have been put on a path to isolation, blocking ourselves off from the world and each other. In times like these, it is an appealing path. But it is not sustainable. As a people, we cannot cut ourselves off from each other. We cannot cut ourselves off from the world.

The amazing thing is that every one of us, regardless of political persuasion or our immigrant roots, believes America is better than this. All of us hope for a time when our children will do better than us — when the American Dream feels like it is within our grasp.

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When you look around, you find the seeds for that brighter future. They are planted in communities where the native-born and immigrants are building a shared American identity — and working together to see us through a pandemic. 

Caring for each other should not be a political statement. It should be the basic foundation of who we are as a people.

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