Imagine a group of people whose politics are in the political middle, perhaps middle right, with moderate views that have defined their understanding of community and nation for most of their lives. They understand we are a nation of immigrants and have myriad tales from their own English or Irish or Chinese families that exemplify the traits of fortitude and courage upon which this country—and their own family’s values and self-definition—have been built.
And yet. Things are moving fast around them. They worry about terrorists or homelessness or lawlessness imported across the border by folks who may come without means to make an honest living, with those worries stoked by a news media and a president who benefit from preying on those vulnerabilities.
There are a few ways Democrats could approach those people.
Democrats can tell them that they are old and defunct, on the wrong side of history, and racist beyond redemption.
Or Democrats could use liberal empathy to try to convince them that, yes, the world is changing quickly, and, yes, the ratio of nationalities who ride our subways and appear on our airwaves is changing, but it’s OK to accept these changes because there will still be a place for everybody in this evolving society, and they will still be valued.
But there’s a third approach to the immigration dilemma that would help Democrats connect with a broader swath of voters by turning the telescope around. If moderates and conservatives are unnerved by a decay in this country of personal accountability and worth ethic, erosion of family values and good old-fashioned responsibility; if they perceive rampant snowflakery among easily swayed urbanites and the young and collegiate; then who best to revive and exemplify American values they themselves are longing to see reflected in the culture than…?
Immigrants don’t just get the job done, they exemplify core American conservative values: family, hard work, community, religion, financial ascendance, hatred of totalitarianism, love of freedom.
According to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, 62.2 percent of immigrants over the age of 16 are employed, 4 percentage points more than native-born Americans. Recent immigrants are more likely to have college degrees and advanced degrees; 72.5 percent believe that hard work is the way to succeed in America. Over the last 10 years, half of the labor force growth in America is due to immigrants.
We’ve been made aware that undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at a significantly lower rate than American-born citizens and that they are—despite higher poverty rates—more law-abiding, but we’re not as frequently acquainted with the fact that they pay $12 billion into state and local taxes. And that two-thirds pay into the Social Security system without any path to receiving benefits later. Various sociology studies tell us that immigrants divorce less and marry more at every age group. A full 82 percent of immigrants express belief in God and place religion as an important aspect of their lives. Among the most important motivations for immigration? Family ties and desire for freedom.
I met a man recently from Kabul whose family had been twice displaced and rebuilt its life from homelessness. In Afghanistan. Imagine a more daunting challenge. One of his seven brothers and his spouse had been killed by ISIS, leaving a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old who this man now supports by sending money home. He speaks five languages and upon arriving got a job training Marines for deployment. Married, raising two kids, working three jobs—isn’t this the sort of guy you want steering our country back on track if you fear we are veering to the listless left?
When I grew up, my next door neighbor was an Indian immigrant whose father moved here penniless and literally worked 24 hours a day (he slept when he could at the front desk of a slum hotel). He built a real estate empire, sent his boys and grandkids to college. Who better than his progeny to share a dorm room with kids of a sheltered generation who may be deficient on perspective and gratitude?
My wife, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, has taught every order of immigrant student, from DACA to DREAMers to green card holders to naturalized citizens. The grit of these kids, in contrast to what I encountered among my peers growing up in the suburban upper-middle class 1980s, is staggering. If Ginger did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels, these kids are doing everything I did while working two jobs, raising younger siblings, taking care of sickly parents, and figuring out how to envision a path out of poverty. Who better to enlighten your wayward grandson or entitled daughter who just don’t understand the way things used to be?
These are the values and struggles of the white working class, of coal miners and folks raised in factory towns that no longer have factories, of pro-boot-strap Republicans and rural church-goers. These are the values of your Jewish great grandparents who fled the Nazis or your forebears who bumped across the Atlantic on leaking ships or your grandparents who got the last chopper out of Saigon or your German antecedents who were once America’s undesirables thought incapable of assimilating.
What if immigrants aren’t just people we are obligated to accept into our society? What if they are in fact the lifeblood of America’s conservative values?