What does it mean to be an American? This election, more than any other in recent decades, is revolving around a fundamental disagreement over American identity. And its outcome will communicate to the world — and to Americans ourselves — what the answer to that question is. Are we a nation that looks inward, that builds walls, that turns away those fleeing persecution and violence? Or does the United States aspire to be the leader of the free world, a refuge for those seeking asylum and a symbol and destination of hope for those seeking a better life for themselves and their children?
Both impulses have been present in American history. From the rabidly anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the KKK (whose official newspaper has endorsed Donald Trump for president), the American story cannot be told without reference to these spasms of racism and nativism. Before this particular round of nativist resentment, the United States sought a kind of isolation in the 1920s, turning inward as trouble brewed abroad. It placed new restrictions on immigration, designed to target populations deemed undesirable.
And now a xenophobic agenda, in which Mexicans are denounced as rapists and religious freedom is seen as no obstacle to banning Muslims from entering the country, has catapulted a populist reality TV star to the top of the Republican Party’s presidential ticket. The alt-right has entered the mainstream with its warnings of ‘white genocide’ and proud sectarian agenda of valuing Christian lives above those of non-Christians, finally warranting a repudiation from the nation’s Democratic nominee.
This election could usher in a new Republican Party that increasingly relies on the ugliest forms of populism and nationalism. It could even redefine the United States as a nation by taking the country down the road of illiberal democracy or even authoritarianism. This isn’t just alarming for Americans who are committed to democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law; it’s also critical moment for the world. This is why in recent comments, Pope Francis made a point of warning against a politics of fear: “Citizens are walled-up, terrified, on one side,” he said. “On the other side, even more terrified, are the excluded and banished.”
And this election will decide the future of both sides.
In Syria, the mass slaughter carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the totalitarian terror of the Islamic State have created a refugee crisis on an epic scale, with roughly half of the Syrian population displaced. The American response has been entirely inadequate. Despite temporary waves of empathy inspired by images of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh, Assad engages in crimes against humanity with impunity and American opposition to the resettlement of refugees within our borders remains strong.
And we have a refugee crisis closer to home — right here on own continent. In my short time in Honduras, I witnessed the specter of insecurity haunting the lives of countless people. But certain people — those who cannot or will not pay extortion fees, those who have witnessed crimes, and others — are targeted for death. The police and members of the judicial branch are too often indifferent or even complicit. Those fleeing such threats are refugees. And some of those who have been turned away have been killed upon their return.
But even beyond these refugees, there are people who are desperate for opportunity, stuck in societies where efforts to reduce corruption, ensure security and create jobs struggle to gain traction.
The United States can and should help these people to remain in their countries. That means continuing to increase aid that fosters integral human development and reduces the atrocious malnutrition rate that exceeds 50 percent in Guatemala, while providing assistance to strengthen civil society and ensure greater transparency and good governance so that corruption can be reduced and government can generate the revenue it needs to fulfill its responsibilities. A strategy that focuses on halting migration or security alone will only perpetuate and extend the migration crisis.
In talking to regular Guatemalans, from those who studied teaching and computers but can’t find jobs in these areas to small farmers subject to the whims of the market and nature, there was a strong desire to stay with their families and find opportunity without migrating. They showed resolve and resiliency in the face of obstacles that would leave many others nihilistic. I spoke with a 19-year-old man named Minor who helps his father grow coffee on a small plot of land. Despite the labor-intensive, low-profit nature of small-scale coffee farming, Minor does not want to abandon his family and country. His greatest desire is to study agriculture in the United States and return home, applying the lessons he learns to uplift his family and community. Susanna, a 25-year-old who studied to be a teacher but has not been able to secure a job in the field after three years of searching, spoke with passion about her continued desire to help her country and community develop. Angelita, an incredibly poised and talented 18-year-old, cannot find stable employment but was firm in her determination to remain with her family and fight for a brighter future in Guatemala. The United States can play a critical role in addressing the root causes of the migration crisis and help reduce the frequency of people from the Northern Triangle — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — making the dangerous trek to the United States.
Those who want to stay and spoke about improving their communities and country also frequently admitted the appeal of traveling to the United States to pick tomatoes or work in a kitchen or even to be a waitress, and many of their friends and family members have migrated. Their desire to do whatever it takes to uplift their families, their enduring hope and persistence in difficult situations is precisely the spirit that represents the best of what it means to be an American. By expanding legal immigration, we would not only give these migrants a more secure means to using their gifts and doing jobs that are essential for our country to function, we would also renew the vitality and spirit of America and affirm that this is still the land of opportunity — that democracy and freedom are based on faith and strength, not fear and weakness.
For Americans voting on Tuesday, the question isn’t only whether the American people can withstand an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee administration, or even whether the rest of the world can. Instead, it’s whether our highest ideals can be reconciled with turning away so many who are fleeing violence, seeking a decent standard of living for their families, or trying to reassemble disintegrated families, and what will become of our national identity if we allow the fear of others to shape our policies instead of a belief in the greatness of the American project as a nation of immigrants. Depending on the outcome of the election, we could go further down the path of isolationism and nativism.
The alternative story is that this is a nation of immigrants; it’s at the core of who we are as a people. We don’t shut out the rest of the world. We don’t turn a blind eye to aggression and atrocities abroad or the desperate plight of those fleeing such violence. Protectionism and isolationism are seen as false choices, offering neither the security nor prosperity they promise.
The United States does not need a xenophobe in chief. We do not need populism that appeals to our worst instincts. To make America great, we need to embrace our responsibilities to foster freedom, democracy and human rights on our own continent and around the world; to welcome refugees and those seeking economic opportunity and even survival; and to embrace a national culture where diversity is seen as a source of pride and strength. Next week’s election is a referendum on American identity, and the decision we make as Americans will have lasting implications that will reverberate around the world. Let us hope that the American people make the right decision and choose to be the land of the free and brave, rather than the isolated and afraid.