In an era of coexistence, US should draw wisdom from its syncretic culture rather than seeking to segregate immigrant communities

CR Kesavan and Vignesh Karthik KR
·5-min read

The United States administration has rescinded its earlier order requiring international students to leave the country if their universities switch entirely to online courses. This flip flop comes after the order was legally challenged by multiple states and educational institutions led by Harvard and MIT.

Notably, this had been preceded by the freezing of 'green-cards' till 2020 end, probably the most over-arching ban on legal immigration. Other pronouncements like suspending temporary H1B and H2B work permits indicate a larger policy proclivity to curb legal immigration into the US via employment and the family chain.

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" is a quote attributed to Mark Twain.

The US history too reflects a checkered pattern in proscribing immigrants. The US has never categorically embargoed the entry of virtually all immigrants seeking to settle permanently even when confronted with the World Wars, perilous pandemics or the Great Depression.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was probably the bellwether legislation in American history to limit legal immigration. Though minuscule in number, the Gold Rush had triggered the migration of Chinese to the American West. The anti-Chinese sentiment engendered the Act, which made them and their American-born families ineligible for citizenship till 1943 when it was revoked by the Magnuson Act.

Towards the end of World War I in 1918, the scourge of the Spanish Flu devastated and infected nearly 1/3rd of the world population, claiming millions of lives, much more than those lost in the war. Concomitantly the largest immigration surge was underway in America. Between 1880 and the 1920s, most of them from Southern and Eastern Europe, but also from Canada and Mexico.

Immigrant groups were traduced as purveyors of peculiar diseases and were stigmatised with moniker's like Asiatic Cholera as it had its roots in India despite flourishing in Europe. Ironically the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 had originated in Kansas, America.

Sweeping fear coupled with the triumph of the nativist sentiment questioning immigrant loyalties led to the Immigration Act of 1924. These conclusively established quotas for immigration based on the National Origins Formula by restricting immigration from non-North European countries besides barring immigrants from Asia with a few exceptions.

It took four decades before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart€"Celler Act abolished the quota system which had made national origin and race the basis for immigration. This comprehensive reform gave preference to individuals with specialised skills and emphasised family links.

That this occurred just a year after the civil rights renaissance and legislation is no mere coincidence. The Immigration Act of 1990 ensured a 7 percent annual cap on employment-based green cards per country and immigration has tripled from 4.7 percent in 1970 to nearly 44.4 million in 2017 which is 13.6 percent of the population.

While it is every country's duty to protect itself from illegal immigrants and the scourge of terrorism, the present US embargo rationale is through the prism of the pandemic which it has repeatedly downplayed. It is supposed to open 5,25,000 jobs for native-born Americans as 22 million have filed for unemployment since the onset of COVID-19 crisis.

The shift from "land of immigrants" toward a narrow nativist narrative squarely broad-brushes the diversity of experiences and contributions that has built the America of today.

Contrary to conventional logic, high skilled workforce in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] streams stood at 20.4 million people or only 12.6 percent of the total workforce [2015] in the US. Foreign-born STEM employees, even under a broader definition of STEM, accounted only for 19.3 percent of this STEM workforce, which is just 2.43 percent of the total workforce.

Notably, a study reveals that for every 100 STEM workers with advanced degrees, 262 more jobs were created for US-born workers. Working from home has mitigated the risk of job loss to an extent during the pandemic and may well become the new norm. Inter alia, innovation and technology-driven solutions will facilitate the shift to remote work, upskilling blue-collar workers and saving large numbers of jobs. The advent of Uber, Airbnb etc. is testimony to such job creation in the pre-pandemic years.

At the same time, according to a Pew Research Center's analysis of federal government data, immigrants were more likely than US-born workers to be employed in lower-skill jobs.

Hispanic immigrants, for instance, have been securing a significant share of non-capped H2A temporary visas for basic low-paying jobs in the agricultural sector. Despite posturing, over 250,000 H2-A visas have been issued in 2019, which is 55 percent more than what was issued in 2017. Immigrants have and will continue to play a pivotal role in the growth of the US and its varied workforce. Is a push back to a blinkered variant of immigration indeed the way forward?

Emblazoned on the Great Seal of the United States is 'E Pluribus Unum' that translates to 'One out of Many', symbolising the union of 13 colonies into a single nation. In an era of coexistence, instead of using the markers of hyphenation to segregate its immigrant communities, America would do well to draw from the provenance of its syncretic culture which exemplifies her innate strength and spirit.

CR Kesavan is a former member of the Prasar Bharati Board. He tweets @crkesavan. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King's College, London. He tweets @krvtweets

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