Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump summarized his point of view about immigration in a speech in Arizona this week: “There is only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well-being of the American people.”
Trump presented a clear “us” versus “them”: the American people on one side, and immigrants on the other. The problem with this rhetoric is that the American people are by definition comprised of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. One in four Americans currently are first- or second-generation immigrants. And even those in the third and higher generation very often live with foreign-born family members, or work, study, pray, or parent alongside immigrant community members.
Among the 13 percent of American residents who are immigrants, the majority are in the United States legally (74 percent). The largest subgroup of legal immigrants, 42 percent of all foreign-born, are naturalized US citizens who have passed an English and civics exam and sworn their allegiance to the country.
Legal permanent residents (green card holders), who most often intend to stay in the country, make up 28 percent of all immigrants, and those on temporary visas comprise less than 5 percent. The remainder or 26 percent of all foreign-born residents (around 3 percent of the total US population) are not authorized to be living in the United States.
The undocumented are also inextricably connected to US citizens and legal immigrants. They share households with an estimated 8.7 million US citizens and legal immigrant family members. A majority of undocumented immigrants have been in the country for 10 years or more, and have woven themselves into the fabric of US communities.
Simple dualities, “us” versus “them,” do not capture this reality of communities all over the United States, where Americans have more and less direct immigrant ties. In the Los Angeles metro area, nearly 60 percent of children have a foreign-born parent, while in the St. Louis metro, that share is 8 percent. Some of the most economically vibrant areas of the country are those with highest immigrant shares, while some of those areas with low immigrants and economic strain are clamoring to entice immigrants to join their communities.
Nationally, immigrant workers make up one-sixth of our workforce, and are disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurs, contributing to the vitality of the country. One-quarter of students in US schools—that is, the country’s future workforce, parents, and voters—are children of immigrants. More than half of recent marriages among immigrants were to a US-born partner. And immigrants from around the world are serving in the US military, spurring technological innovation, and diversifying and enriching the country’s cuisine, music, business, art, and research.
Yes, the well-being of the American people should be a very top priority for our nation’s leaders. The American people, no matter when our families arrived, widely cherish our history of immigration, which has shaped and continues to shape “us.” Our next president should value this immigration reality too.