On this past 4th of July, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) oversaw the naturalization of 15,000 immigrants. This number is more than double the 7,000 citizens who naturalized a year ago. The 65 naturalization ceremonies across the country from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Vancouver, Washington are occasions that signify joy and happiness.
Gallup poll estimates from late June show that 49% of Americans say that immigrants help the U.S. economy while a smaller 40% of Americans say immigrants hurt the economy. We might think that immigrants are welcome in this country after looking at this favorable poll number and hearing about naturalization ceremonies around the nation. Yet, the reality is much more complicated and mixed than what ceremonies and statistics might lead us to believe.
In the current sociopolitical climate, it is difficult to ignore that immigrants face negative rhetorical receptions from other domestic-born Americans. Politicians and commentators continue to use unwelcoming words to describe immigrants. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)’s annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” event, which more than 24 congresspeople and two senators attended from June 28-29 at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., served as a stage for such rhetoric. At this event, radio host Sandy Rios claimed that “the people coming in [to the United States] don’t know basic hygiene." It is disheartening yet part of reality that media figures continue to make derogatory generalizations about immigrants.
Elected officials echoed similar sentiments in their later speeches at the event. Iowa Congressman Steve King said “real [Supreme Court] justices” have dissented in recent cases where more liberal justices have decided not to deport immigrants. Then, Bristol County, MA Sheriff Tom Hodgson proposed issuing arrest warrants for officials who support sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. Unfortunately, these remarks from Congressman King and Sheriff Hodgson remind us that politicians continue to use loaded xenophobic language to energize supporters. While USCIS welcomed thousands of immigrants as citizens on this 4th of July, xenophobia threatens to constrain the positive impressions that we might get from reading about recent welcoming ceremonies.
However, we must not forget that positive actions and symbols abound across the country in the face of xenophobic rhetoric. On July 6, 2017, the City of San Francisco updated its sanctuary policy to reinforce “respect and trust” between law enforcement and residents and city official Bill Hing stated that “together we are going to stand up to illegal enforcement actions by ICE and other entities of Homeland Security.” The City’s actions prove that certain politicians continue to respect immigrants. Even in conservative central-western North Carolina, the North Carolina Council of Churches placed the Biblical quote “Welcome the stranger, for you were once a stranger” on a highway billboard. We need to remember that this country is not an entirely hostile place and that there are many people in the U.S. who fight to increase the public’s acceptance of immigrants every day.
We must contextualize the recent 4th of July naturalization ceremonies within the mixed environment of respect and intolerance that characterizes American immigration as a social and political issue. We should rejoice in the fact that thousands of immigrants have been officially welcomed to the U.S., but remember that immigrants still encounter shocking bigotry in this country. Mixed receptions continue.