In the weeks and days leading up to 9/11, comprehensive immigration reform was within grasp. President Bush was spending political capital. Mexico’s President Fox, before becoming the best F-Bomber ever, was fully invested.

The pieces were falling into place. Which means we were *that close* to me advocating for puppies.

Instead …

Two decades later, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, President Bush spoke in Shanksville, PA, about the, “growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within.”

We are at a crossroads.

Is immigration a bridge to a stronger democracy? Or, does it continue to be used as the preferred cudgel of authoritarians abroad and extremists within?

These days, there is a lot in play. Through budget reconciliation, Democrats seek to legalize Dreamers, Farmworkers and Temporary Protected Status recipients. Migration from Central America continues, even as Mexico, at our behest, hardens its southern border. Natural disasters and political instability in Haiti and Cuba, respectively, create their own set of migration pressures. And, dominating the news, tens of thousands of Afghans are methodically processed into the country.

All of this is against a backdrop of an increase in white extremism, a coronavirus pandemic that 43% of Republicans believe immigrants crossing the southern border are responsible for spreading, and looming electoral cycles that will be the most divisive of our lifetime.

If recent history is any indication, even though 69% of Americans support resettling Afghans who worked with the U.S., a nativist backlash is sure to come.

Looking back to the Syrian refugee crisis, as I told the Boston Globe last week, attacks on immigrants led to populism, which then “became nativism that became Christian nationalism.”

And, before we knew it, as I write in my upcoming book (April 2022), Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants, “Leaders of liberal democracies from Europe to the US were trading away the dignity of migrants in order to hold onto power.”

Stemming the backlash to Afghan resettlement is one thing. Building support for welcoming other populations, much less fixing the immigration system overall, is quite the other.

Last week’s NPR/Ipsos poll illustrates the challenge.

For Democrats and Independents, COVID-19 ranks as the most worrying topic of the day. Among Republicans, the pandemic falls behind terrorism and immigration as most worrisome. Reverting to their pre-Trump norm, Democrats place immigration near the bottom of the list of concerns; middle of the pack for Independents.

(Shorter: Expect Republican messaging on immigration and terrorism to increase.)

On the other hand, 64% of Republicans support the resettlement of Afghans who fear repression or persecution from the Taliban. (Over 70% of Republicans support admitting Afghans who worked with the U.S. government.)

Yet, just over 40% of Republicans for the admission of those fleeing Central America, Africa, Libya or Syria.

This is not surprising since 26% of Republicans are U.S. veterans, or someone in their household is a U.S. veteran. Keep in mind, only 17% of Republicans said they live in communities with large immigrant populations. (Only 21% overall.) My point being, demographics is not destiny.

Look, as a friend told me a couple weeks ago, “Politics is about events.” And, well, the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans is a big freaking event. (I know. President Fox would be terribly disappointed.)

So, for our part, we aren’t going to step away from pushing for legislative opportunities to protect folks who are here. Nor are we going to take our eye off the long game that builds support for reforming the system.

But, in the here and now, we want to do everything we can to ensure the resettlement of Afghans is not only broadly supported, but pushes back against extremism and sets the stage for welcoming other populations as well.

Which won’t be easy. And, frankly, I don’t have any immediate solutions. But there is a new story about American immigration that we can develop. That we need to develop.

The questions on my mind this these days: How do national security experts and U.S. veterans who are heroically animated by the evacuation and resettlement of Afghans become allies to the larger immigrant community? How does the need for immigration to the U.S. be seen as a national security imperative?

For better or worse, these are the points of entry to conversations based on our economy, much less our values.

Ultimately, we have to give people who are worried about immigration a place to go that is compassionate, not extremist. Which, again, is not easy; but it is critically important.

Because, as President Bush said in Shanksville:

“There’s little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard of human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

Onwards.

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President and CEO of National Immigration Forum and America is Better, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, host of the podcast, Only in America.