Strangers No More: Welcoming Immigrants Makes America Stronger

Speaking at a prayer breakfast, Ronald Reagan once said that a tolerant society should be “open to and encouraging of all religions.” He said, “…this does not weaken us. It strengthens us. It makes us strong.”

With this week’s executive orders, I fear that the new Administration has taken a dangerous step on a path that will promote intolerance and create a less resilient democracy. While the “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” order itself does not single out Muslim refugees, the president’s campaign rhetoric and the platform on which he was elected reflect and reinforce a nativist anxiety that betrays some of the best of what it means to be an American.

America is a nation of immigrants and has long been a refuge for people fleeing intolerance and persecution. The diversity that has resulted is a hallmark of our democracy and is often represented as one of our greatest strengths. Indeed, our country’s motto is E Pluribus Unum, or ‘Out of Many, One.’ We should never turn our backs on our own creed.

Unfortunately, a large segment of the American public harbors significant fears of Muslims. This is due in part to media echo chambers, political fear mongering, and a lack of direct exposure to the 3.3 million Muslim Americans who care for this country and its values no less than any other Americans. These fears have transformed legitimate concerns about terrorism into calls for policies that close our doors to the people who are fleeing groups like ISIS — our enemies in the war on terror.

Last fall, I worked with a Republican-led team of researchers on a project called “Stranger in My Own Country,” to better understand why voters were responding to some of the nativist rhetoric being expressed by now-President Donald Trump during the election. Following a series of in-depth interviews, a national public opinion survey, and experimental research to understand how exposure to different media could increase tolerance, I was left with reason to be both deeply concerned and somewhat hopeful.

Voters we interviewed in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, who ranged from voting for Trump in the primary to considering voting for him in the general election, saw a disconnect between American values and Islam. Most interviewees told us that they believe Muslim immigrants cannot, or will not, assimilate. The overarching emotion here was fear.

When we surveyed a national sample of Americans, 43 percent told us that Islam is not compatible with American values. That number jumps to 73 percent among self-identified Trump primary supporters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 78 percent of Trump primary supporters were supportive of stopping or severely restricting Syrian refugees from coming to our country. These fears are akin to the fears of generations past when prior waves of immigrants came to America — immigrants who are now an accepted and even celebrated part of our society.

Now, it’s clear that most voters who cast a ballot for Donald Trump are not racist or hateful. But from the data, we do see deep cultural anxieties and fears driving many voters to accept policies that run counter to many of the things that they cherish most about our free and diverse society. It is not unsurprising given these political forces that President Trump has instituted a temporary ban on refugees and plans on building a massive wall along our southern border. These are promises he made on the campaign trail that genuinely resonate with many of his strongest supporters.

If we are to honor our traditions of pluralism and openness, it is deeply important that we find ways to engage with these Americans to address the underlying fears that are driving their sentiments and their votes.

The good news is that our initial research suggests that this is possible. We showed a random sample of Americans a series of ads that demonstrated different approaches to increasing understanding of Americans who are Muslim. The results were striking. After watching videos that depicted Muslim Americans reading nativist Facebook comments, we saw a 26-point drop in negative attitudes about Muslims compared to a control group among the Trump supporters who rated the now-president most favorably.

This research is a first step toward better understanding how parts of the electorate are experiencing nativism and how we can promote better understanding in a diverse country. If we are to find ways to engage communities and bridge differences, we also need to understand what is driving people’s fears. Only then can we begin real conversations about core American values.

To learn more about research, visit democracyfundvoice.org.