A Culture War Inside a Pandemic

Since acting to repatriate Americans on January 29th, the Trump administration has made nearly five dozen changes to immigration policy.

The actions have ranged from closing specific immigration courts to country or region-specific travel bans to modifying to specific visa programs. From a public health perspective, some of them are necessary.

But, over a dozen of the measures have no end date. One of the most recent being a May 19 order by CDC Director Redfield that indefinitely extends the ban on asylum at all Ports of Entry along our northern and southern borders, “Until [Redfield] determine that the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health, and continuation of the Order is no longer necessary to protect the public health.”

Over the long weekend, the Wall Street Journal and Politico reported on plans to expand the April 22 proclamation to suspend certain classes of legal immigration. Given Stephen Miller has finally found the health issue with which he can close off immigration to the US, it is not far-fetched to expect a number of these changes will go from temporary to permanent.

Whether this or a future administration, rolling back these changes will depend on how Americans understand the pandemic. So, let’s talk about the story being told by the administration.

In her 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, Laura Spinney cites two psychologists who find collective memories are defined by “’a small number of salient events referring to beginning, turning and end points.’” These memories are more clear if the events have “heroic or mythic components.”

Wars fit this profile. They have beginnings, endings and heroes.

A flu pandemic, she writes, “has no clear beginning or end, and no obvious heroes.”

But pandemics have villains.

Spinney points out that in the 1830s, cholera was blamed on poor Irish immigrants, towards the end of the 19th century TB became known as the “Jewish disease,” and Italians were blamed for a polio outbreak in 1916.

As the Spanish Flu eventually wound down, an immigration debate wound up in Congress. Which lead to President Coolidge signing the Immigration Act of 1924, dramatically reduced immigration from southern Europe.

In spite of the fact that, “Though everyone had been vulnerable to the flu, the Italians had been more vulnerable than most.”

These days, as a culture war rages inside a pandemic, the Trump administration is busy finding villains.

The administration is happy to pin blame on the Chinese government, but rarely speak to the contributions of Asian medical providers. As a result, “Across the country, Asian American health-care workers have reported a rise in bigoted incidents,’ reports the Washington Post’s Tracy Jan. (My conversation with Kathy Ko Chin of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum touched on this issue.)

The administration urgently deems agricultural and meat packing workers essential, but never mentions those doing the work, or their immigration status. And as the pandemic moves to rural America, there is little indication the administration is taking the necessary steps to protect these workers or tamp down the cultural tension in rural and exurban communities.

All to say, the changes to immigration policy are more than policy. They begin to tell a story about Covid-19 that paints immigrants as the villain. A message that will get louder and angrier as the election nears, the economy suffers and cases rises in conservative parts of the country — much less south of the border.

At the appropriate time, some of the measures will come to an end. The others will be challenged by policy experts and legal advocates.

But the story is more powerful than the policy. It is the story that Americans will remember. It is the story that will guide the way we treat immigrants and immigration in the future.

Among some corners of the immigration movement there is concern that by making immigrants on the frontlines of the pandemic the “heroes” we are dismissing the value of other members of the community.

This is a risk worth taking.

At a time when people are scared for their personal and economic health, we need heroes.

If we can help people understand how all of us, regardless of where we were born, are contributing to the response and recovery, we give people a place to go.

Because, we are nearing a point where temporary becomes permanent, because perception shapes reality.

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.