Earlier this month, the five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court indicated their intent to let President Donald Trump end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. This move would force 700,000 Dreamers into the shadows. These are young people who have earned degrees, pursued careers, and served our country in the armed forces. Yet despite the contributions they have made, Trump insists upon vilifying them as “hardened criminals,” and the nation’s highest court seems willing to let him proceed with this policy.
Sadly, the current administration has done much to challenge our self-conception as a nation of immigrants. But xenophobia of this kind did not start with Trump — it has roots in some of the darker chapters of our history.
My family’s story offers a window into the hope and promise of the American experiment. I was born in Philadelphia in 1976, our bicentenary. My parents are immigrants who, like millions of others, came to our nation with the hope of a better life. As a substitute teacher in Bucks County public schools, my mother helped motivate the next generation to succeed. As a chemical engineer with Rohm & Haas in Bristol, my father pushed progress in technical innovation. Their hard work and sacrifice enabled me and my brother to receive an outstanding public school education and, today, to devote ourselves to public service.
Our story is not unique. In California, where I now have my own family, we are lucky to count more than 10 million immigrants as our coworkers, classmates, and neighbors. From the agricultural fields of the Central Valley to the high-tech labs of Silicon Valley, they enrich the state culturally and economically.
Yet the Trump Administration has ignored these positive contributions and instead relied on fear to justify anti-immigrant policies that they hope will keep us divided. They are drawing on a shortsighted, ugly tradition.
More than a century before the Muslim ban, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After that, discrimination toward immigrants from Asia continued for generations. Relying on principles from the Jim Crow South, the Immigration Act of 1917 established literacy tests and barred all immigrants from what they called the “Asiatic zone.” The logic at the core of these measures was made abundantly clear in 1923, when the Supreme Court ruled that Baghat Singh Thind — a U.S. Army veteran who was born in my mother’s birthplace of Punjab, India — could not naturalize as a citizen because he was not white.
The path from Thind to my parents was paved by struggle. The Immigration Act of 1965, which President Lyndon Johnson signed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, was won by the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans like myself have been major beneficiaries of that historic fight. And the Civil Rights Movement itself drew inspiration from independence movements around the world, like the one led by Mahatma Gandhi in India. During Gandhi’s independence movement, my grandfather spent years in prison for his commitment to freeing India from centuries of British rule.
This history is deeply personal for me, and it has helped me see my fate as bound to a great civil rights issue of our times: the struggle for a more just immigration policy.
We can start by extending legal status to the Dreamers who are right to call this country home, a stance supported by all competitive Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election. We should also look toward ending Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy and returning to the longtime standard of treating family border crossings — often mothers with their children — as civil enforcement matters; acknowledging the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America; and welcoming migrants who flee gang violence or climate catastrophes.
Just as it took a social movement to overcome the xenophobic immigration laws of a century past, it will take a social movement today to win these kinds of policies. Thankfully, the Dreamers have been doing the hard work of building that movement for years. Together we must continue that struggle to create a fair and rational immigration system no matter what the Supreme Court decides. I have faith, ultimately, that the kindness and decency of the American people will prevail.