“The backlash is intense”

Over the last few weeks, we have seen jarring photos of food banks. Lines stretching for miles. Millions of meals served.

For the time being, an infrastructure of local government and civic sector leadership (thank you, José) holds together to serve metropolitan regions. The America most of us live in.

In this America, much of the immigration narrative focuses on the critical role immigrants play in health care and food production. Particularly as we near a Supreme Court decision on the fate of DACA (a fact sheet).

The Center for American Progress found that the states with the most DACA recipients are also home to the largest number of DACA recipients working in health care occupations. Some 3,700 DACA recipients, for example, are personal care aides.

They found that DACA recipients work in other critical sectors: 12,800 in the farming and agriculture industry and 11,600 DACA recipients in the food manufacturing industry.

Let’s talk about these numbers for a second.

Look a little more broadly and you find that, at best, the DACA numbers do not tell the story of the complete contribution of the immigrant community to the Covid-19 response. At worst, they create a difference between “good” and “bad” immigrants.

According to New American Economy, immigrants make up over 36% of the 432,000 home health aides in the U.S. And, of the 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the food sector, they found, “3.8 million immigrants make up more than one in five workers.”

Obviously, we need to protect the ability of DACA recipients to continue to fully contribute to our economy. Ideally through a legislative solution that is signed into law. But it needs to be a solution that is a first step to addressing the much larger community.

Because, as Covid-19 marches through rural America — the America few of us live in or have visited, the America with fewer DACA recipients — the response and recovery will be very different.

Particularly as cases spike in regions with smaller, but more concentrated, immigrant communities.

Which is what the President is counting on when he tweets, “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

For example, 733 cases emerged from a Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And, in Luisa County, Iowa, 166 positive cases have been identified mainly through an outbreak at a Tyson plant in Columbus Junction. “The county’s per capita caseload is one of the highest in the country, outpacing the state of New York.”

Art Cullen writes in the Storm Lake Times, “Knives of anxiety cut to our quick as we pray for the workers processing turkeys and hogs into our food.”

An anxiety and fear that will cut in dangerous ways.

Last week, the president of a community foundation in the rural Midwest wrote to me, “As we now try to provide for [the immigrant community’s] basic needs; food, shelter and health care, the backlash is intense.”

And this was before Trump’s efforts to link immigrants to MS-13 and stoke Islamophobia — signaling the political ugliness to come.

Ron Brownstein correctly points out in The Atlantic that as urban and suburban voters “recoil” from the GOP, Trump will need to ramp up turnout in “exurban, rural, and small-town voters, who are more likely to be blue-collar, white, and Christian.”

Which makes last week’s letter from the Evangelical Immigration Table calling for release of immigration detainees who are not public safety threats all the more important. (Coverage in Christianity Today, Christian Post, AP and other outlets.)

Absolute numbers of cases in rural areas are unlikely to reach what we see in suburban and urban regions. But the economic fallout will extend across the country and the debate will shift from public health vs the economy, to the American worker vs “the other.”

In this environment, one’s personal immigration experience can be overpowered by a national, fear-driven, storyline.

Left unchallenged by credible conservative messengers, the strongman approach, vilifying “the other,” will resonate deeply in areas where immigrants are most exposed and least served. The America where most of us do not live.

Without a moral meaning, a sense of right and wrong, to the response and recovery, forces will capitalize on massive unemployment and the divide between our two Americas to drastically reduce immigration.

It is critical that employment, education, in essence, community, takes on a constructive cultural and political frame. If tangible work, functional relief, is exclusive to one community or another, recovery will lead to ever greater division.

In this equation, the immigrant, the other, will be scapegoated — if not worse.

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