“In Iraq, you’d be a dishwasher,” the Iraqi general said to me through my interpreter, Big Mike. Big Mike started to apologize on behalf of the general, but it was a remark I’d anticipated.
“True,” I replied, “and that is the difference between our countries.” General Hasan and I always got along well, so the banter simply followed the natural flow of the conversation. He certainly did not mean for the remark to be construed maliciously. Nevertheless, the exchange highlighted the stark differences between America and Iraq — indeed, between America and many other parts of the world: America is a country built by immigrants. America is where a young boy from Taiwan could grow up to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army, to represent the Defense Department on a training mission in Iraq, and to be afforded the opportunity to obtain a doctorate in psychology.
While my story is not unique, it is uniquely American. However, these stories might soon disappear. The American Dream might become the impossible dream for millions of people who want to become Americans.
Closing off the Dream is a deliberate policy decision, one borne out of a natural reaction to very real fears that a globalizing world has turned winners into losers. Yet this policy pivot turns its back on the very core of what it means to be American. The U.S. was founded as a place where, regardless of your religion, you would be free to practice and where anyone who crossed the ocean or a border would be treated with dignity and respect upon arrival. This essential equality was attractive to many, including Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Imagine a world where Germany beat the U.S. to the atomic bomb, where Google does not exist, where Arnold and Danny DeVito never teamed up in a buddy film — perhaps where there is no America at all. That would not be a pleasant world to live in.
Immigrants have made very real contributions to our national prosperity and security. In fact, over 114,000 members of the U.S. military are immigrants, making up 8% of the force. And now, more than ever, America needs to attract the most talented and energetic in order to continue to be great.
A more restrictive immigration policy has effects beyond the border: it sets us down the path of highlighting our differences instead of recognizing and respecting our similarities. We have the same worries about paying for the doctor, we drive on the same pothole-filled roads, we send our kids to the same schools. We may not agree with each other on everything but we don’t need to — after all, universal agreement begins to look a lot like fascism. What is important is that most Americans remain committed to America as an idea. Patriotism remains free from any party’s control, a fact that the fervor of the past presidential election only made more evident. Discriminating based on identity, dismissing people because they wear a red hat, and essentially allowing skin-deep differences cut to the bone is exactly what America’s enemies want us to do. Such policy shifts regarding religious and personal freedom signal to the world that America is no longer a welcoming place for diversity, therefore making America look less attractive to the very people we need.
Changes must be made to the immigration system in order to make it more sensible and fair. Writing these words is easy, but following through on them and ensuring that the results are fair is much more difficult. Some promote changes to immigration policy that may result in the Dream I was able to realize being plucked out of the hands of millions of undocumented people who arrived on American soil as unwitting children. In the mad rush to reform the existing immigration structure, we tend to forget that we are talking about other humans: our neighbors, our schoolmates, our friends. Such is the paradox: by supposedly trying to be fair and eliminating the DACA provisions, we are instead unfairly yanking the rug out from under millions of people promised safety and security. We, the people of the U.S., determine what is legal regarding immigration. But in the end, the laws we create do not absolve us of responsibility to our fellow man.
Immigration and what it will look like in the next four years speaks to the very core of our national character. Will we enact real reform that increases American power and innovation, or will we make truly counterproductive and inhumane policy choices? We should strive to do better than look at entire classes of people as dishwashers. But will we?
Welton Chang is a Truman National Security Fellow and co-director of Truman’s Philadelphia chapter. Views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @weltonchang