He Couldn’t Come After This Month: An Immigrant’s Potential Would Be Erased Under Trump’s Immigration System

By Megan Essaheb and Patrice S. Lawrence

The February 11 op-ed, “A limo driver’s route to citizenship: Why merit-based immigration works” by Bradley A. Blakeman is problematic for a number of reasons.

Without a hint of irony, the author used the story of an immigrant from Sudan to push a drastic immigration overhaul being promoted by the White House. But beginning on February 21, Sudanese nationals will be banned from immigrating to the U.S. through the diversity visa program due to the President’s expansion of the Muslim Ban.

Based on the story details and visa numbers for people from Sudan, this man would likely have received one of those diversity visas or resettled as a refugee. Between 2010–2018, 8,713 Sudanese nationals became lawful permanent residents through the diversity visa program and since the decimation of the refugee program, serves as the primary way for Sudanese nationals to immigrate to the U.S. Over 1,200 refugees arrived from Sudan every year from 2014–2016, but with recent cuts, the number decreased to only 76 arrivals in 2018. Thus, the primary pathway to the U.S. was through the diversity visa program, which brought in 1,680 Sudanese in 2018.

The author fails to note how anti-immigrant the Trump Administration has been: stripping immigrants of due process rights, instilling fear in communities, violently separating children from their families, and using dehumanizing rhetoric. Through administrative changes, the administration has also successfully reduced the number of immigrants who obtain green cards. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, excluding refugees, 11.5% fewer people (mostly of color) were granted lawful permanent residence in FY 2018 than FY 2016. For refugees, from 2016 to 2018, there was a 91% decline in Muslim refugees as a result of the Muslim Ban and cuts to the refugee program. With the public charge rule about to go into effect, we will likely see a spike in family-based visa denials as well.

And indeed, the author uses a small part of the Sudanese man’s life story — a man he met for probably 20 minutes — to argue for a White House proposal to end, or significantly shrink, all of the diversity visa program and family-based system in order to create a “merit-based” system that prioritizes only wealthy immigrants.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that created our family-based immigration system was passed as a civil rights law. It ended the explicitly racist national origin quotas that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act and expanded to prefer Northern and Western Europe. It is those immigrants that the President has so famously stated he would prefer to African immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1990 expanded the number of family-based visas allotted per year and created the Diversity Visa Program, which allows for 50,000 green cards annually from nations with low migration rates to the United States. It is a primary way for Africans to immigrate.

Underlying this vision of our immigration future are many assumptions about who is valuable in our society and who is not. Embedded in Blakeman’s story itself is the idea that the doctor-passengers were only embarrassed about being rude to the driver because he turned out to be a doctoral student in their circle. Was he not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect anyway? What if he were “just” a driver, a job that is core to the functioning of Washington? Neither should excuse or allow for such condescension.

Our immigration system should continue to prioritize family and humanitarian values and strive to promote diversity, civil rights, and racial justice. It should continue to offer opportunities to those seeking refuge from violence, persecution or poverty. Any merit-based system is likely to favor elites, wealthier and higher educated immigrants and people from wealthier nations. While we do need more opportunities for people, employment-based green cards to fill labor market needs, including low-wage jobs, we must be careful not to commodify people. We must also recognize the role that family members, particularly women, play in caring for children, the elderly and the sick. Families help immigrants integrate, find jobs, and become citizens.

A so-called “merit-based” plan should not be allowed to whitewash the cruelty that this administration has imposed on immigrant and mixed-status families. An immigration system that works for everyone is going to be one that allows for deeper and more meaningful conversation about the contributions of immigrants, our values, and how they should be reflected in our policies.

Megan Essaheb is the Director of Immigration Advocacy at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and Patrice S. Lawrence is the Co-Director of UndocuBlack Network. The organizations are part of the Value Our Families Campaign.

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Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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