The Politics of Compassion: US Immigration Policy and the Conflicted American Archetype

Aarshin Karande
17 min readSep 13, 2017
Obama and Trump shake hands at the 58th presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017.

Originally published in The Republic on August 12, 2017.

In 1958, as a senator in the United States, John F. Kennedy published the book, A Nation of Immigrants. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who later became Attorney General, wrote a foreword to the book. In it, he reflected, “Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”

If Kennedy’s words still hold true (and they usually do), then today’s America is surely facing a crisis of faith. Immigration policies in the United States have suffered from inadequate planning, contradictory protocols, and unsustainable strategies. As this impasse persists and gains more media attention, the public grows weary and divided about new policies that depart from the values that have defined American welfare, such as those recently proposed by President Donald J. Trump.

The stasis on immigration policy reflects deep rifts in the broader American psyche, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s succession of Barack Obama to President of the United States. The unprecedented and paradoxical transition from Obama to Trump represents two vivid and diverging propositions about the American ideal. This tension, involving America’s self-image, implicates US policy broadly, particularly US immigration policy, which has historically been an expression of how the US seeks to recount itself.

To disambiguate the complexity of the American immigration system, we must unravel the conflicted values characterizing today’s America that have been reflected upon Obama and Trump. By doing so, we may provide some fresh air to a suffocating policy space.

For the necessary task of disentangling this American complex and its projection on policy, we must investigate how conflicting American values have been reflected upon Obama and Trump and, consequently, stifled meaningful reform and vision about US immigration policy.

Immigration as Revolution

Speaking with the Daughters of the American Revolution in April 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested, “Remember always that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” These remarks present immigration as an explicitly American value, comparable to notions like self-determination and revolution. Immigrants, and related choices surrounding migration, are and have been politically revolutionary.

Roosevelt’s words suggest immigration was conceived in America as a political ideal and tool to negotiate what is and is not “American.” Consequently, the history of American immigration details a prolonged deliberation about the changing needs and aspirations of a country preoccupied with recreating itself and its mythos.

This reflexive ritual is necessary because America’s original sin was forced immigration and emigration. The systematic displacement of American Indian native populations by colonial settlement (e.g. “manifest destiny”) and enslavement of Africans have rendered immigration as an inherent predicament for the United States. Prior to 1860, US census numbers excluded these groups. Our historical view of American demographics is, thus, rendered incomplete by limited census methodologies and records of anecdotal accounts, and discrimination.

Legacy of Exclusion

Over the years, opportunities derived from economic development necessitated the evolution of US immigration policy. Plantations brought enslaved Africans to the US. Westward expansion brought more Europeans. Industrialization brought Asians and Jews. Urbanization brought desegregation and integration. Digitization brought elites from around the world, but largely Asia. Neoliberal globalization brought undocumented migrants from Latin and South America. Now, we are in the midst of a global mass migration defined by virtualization. These processes have developed with the blessings of policymakers and resulted in the successive reconceptualization of the “immigrant” and “citizen” in the US. Moreover, the portraits of these archetypes have developed alongside fundamental shifts in the politics and economics of the US.

Before the national abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century and racial desegregation throughout the twentieth Century, US immigration had been respected as a largely Eurocentric concern. At the time of independence, the vast majority of immigrants in the US originated from the British Isles, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The first US census in 1790 indicates that enslaved Africans made up nearly 18 per cent of the population and resided in southern states where slavery had not been abolished. And the slave trade still operated in the US before federal prohibition in 1807. Before then, abolitionism had gained political traction in areas not dependent on slave labour. Geographic development and requirements for labour and trade determined the distribution of free and forced migrants, and distinct accounts of the American experience resulted from the varying impacts. The unfolding of American history has, therefore, led to the confrontation of the values determined by distinct experiences, cultures, and politics.

The limited coverage paid to immigration issues by contemporary popular culture and media notwithstanding, most Americans focus on the legacy of forced African migration, or slavery. The violence, discrimination, and exclusion that have marked this group can be found in the similar experiences of American-Indian natives, some European groups, and, more recently, Asians.

Historian, K. Scott Wong, succinctly describes how American immigrants are figuratively and literally alienated by a “legacy of exclusion” within which policies and attitudes that target and marginalize immigrants operate. But, the dependence of the American economics and politics on low-earning immigrant workers and high-earning immigrant workers is a glaring paradox that perplexes policymakers.

Policy as Discrimination

On January 27, 2017, President Trump announced an executive action that temporarily banned citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering into the United States. All 7 nations have majority-Muslim populations. During his campaign for the presidency, Trump described this idea as a “Muslim ban.” The president faced an immediate and intense outcry from members of the public including policy officials, corporations, and civil society leaders who fervently condemned his actions.

Since, courts have blocked parts of the president’s order, citing violations to the US Constitution and rights like Due Process and Equal Protection as cause. Despite revising his policies and methods, Trump’s attempts to reform immigration enforcement have been duly halted by courts for being implicitly discriminatory.

Despite today’s public outrage about the Trump administration’s policies, the US has been no stranger to racist, discriminatory policies that target immigrants and travel — in fact, such policies lie within a tradition that dates back to the very beginning of American Independence.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 specified who could become a citizen and made free whites of “good moral character” as those only eligible to do so. Subsequently, a series of legislative acts authorized government officials to imprison and deport aliens by discretion of the president, courts, and local law enforcers. In 1864, courts authorized the enforcement of immigrant labour contracts made abroad, due to labour shortages during the Civil War. Only in 1870 were naturalization rights extended to those of African nativity or descent, including slaves.

As industrialization brought more Chinese immigrants to the US in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, some major policies were authorized to prohibit the immigration of “criminals” and contracting of forced Asian labourers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration for 10 years, enforced the deportation of “unauthorized” Chinese immigrants, and indefinitely barred the naturalization of Chinese immigrants. Banning Chinese immigration again for 10 years in 1892, these were the first laws targeting and preventing specific ethnic groups from immigrating to the United States.

At the time, many Chinese immigrants became bonded labourers (effectively slaves) and worked in the gold fields of California and built portions of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In 1917, the US Congress banned immigration from most Asian countries except for the Philippines, which was then a US colony, and Japan, which had already barred emigration to the US.

The turn of the century saw new policies that excluded polygamists, those with contagious diseases, anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes from entering the US. Starting in 1917, immigrants above the age of 16 were required to demonstrate basic reading ability (in any language).

Pew Research provides a useful summary of major immigration policies during the twentieth century:

  • By the early 1900s, the nation’s predominant immigration flow shifted away from northern and western European nations and toward southern and eastern Europe. In response, laws were passed in 1921 and 1924 to try to restore earlier immigration patterns by capping total annual immigration and imposing numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favoured northern and western European countries.
  • Long-standing immigration restrictions began to crumble in 1943, when a law allowed a limited number of Chinese to immigrate. In 1952, legislation allowed a limited number of visas for other Asians, and race was formally removed as grounds for exclusion. Although a presidential commission recommended scrapping the national-origins quota system, Congress did not go along.
  • In 1965, though, a combination of political, social and geopolitical factors led to passage of the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act that created a new system favouring family reunification and skilled immigrants, rather than country quotas. The law also imposed the first limits on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Before then, Latin Americans had been allowed to enter the US without many restrictions. Since enactment of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, immigration has been dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America, rather than Europe.
  • Several laws since then have focused on refugees, paving the way for entrance of Indochinese refugees fleeing war violence in the 1970s. Later such laws expanded their focus to include relief for other nationalities, including Chinese, Nicaraguans and Haitians. A 1990 law created the “temporary protective status” that has shielded immigrants, mainly Central Americans, from deportation to countries facing natural disasters, armed conflicts or other extraordinary conditions.
  • In 1986, Congress enacted another major law — the Immigration Reform and Control Act — that granted legalization to millions of unauthorized immigrants, who met certain conditions. These were migrants mainly from Latin America. The law also imposed sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized immigrants. Subsequent laws in 1996, 2002 and 2006 were responses to concerns about terrorism and unauthorized immigration. These measures emphasized border control, prioritized enforcement of laws on hiring immigrants and tightened admissions eligibility.

As minority ethnic groups served increasingly in the development of the American economy, causes for social equity grew. K. Scott Wong describes this pattern as a “push and pull”: something pushes people out of their homeland and something else pulls them into the United States. Even in the case of forced migration, slaves were brought to the US by labour demands. The “push and pull” pattern also adequately describes the historical and contemporary conflicting attitudes about immigration.

Point of Divergence

Today, the United States is composed of the most ethnically, geographically, and economically diverse immigrants in its history. The legal and cultural regard for immigrants has changed, as citizenship and rights were granted to minority ethnic groups throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. These revisions reflect historical negotiations about how America views itself and its significance to global development.

Since the early-2000s, the American political spectrum has witnessed changing attitudes on immigration of varying intensities. American journalist, Fareed Zakaria, attributes the global rise in xenophobic policies and political candidates to recent mass migrations. He notes how “more immigrants invariably means more populists”. He also highlights that the number of foreign-born people in the US has nearly tripled since 1970.

On one hand, right-wing policies are strictly critical of immigration, citing visa programs and open borders as culprits of income inequality, domestic terrorism, and corruption. The negative attitudes on immigration have swelled, as popular media have paid more attention to undocumented immigration — the migration of people who enter the United States without legal authorization — primarily from Latin America, South America, and the Middle East.

Despite these negative attitudes, illegal immigration had slowly decreased during the Obama administration. The US has also witnessed a net decrease in authorized and unauthorized Mexican immigrants entering the US. Many immigrants undertake jobs within important sectors of the American labour market and economy, which benefits overall economic mobility. Attitudes on immigration also differ by race, with Asian and European immigrants viewed more positively than those from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

On the other hand, left-wing policies suggest a more positive attitude towards immigration. Political scientist, Peter Beinart, details how such policies have drastically shifted. In 2008, the Democratic Party platform advocated that undocumented immigration shouldn’t go “unchecked.” In 2016, the Party refrained from describing any form of immigration as “illegal.” Progressive leaders suggest a consensus about the positive benefits of immigration, despite the fact. Leftists praise the United States as a “melting pot”, suggesting “diversity” and “intersectionality” as essential to Americana. Beinart mentions Karen Stenner of Princeton University, who observes:

“Exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference — the hallmarks of liberal democracy — are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness.”

By way of its philosophical defence of immigration, both legal and illegal, the US Left has lost much capital in its ability to influence policy, dissenters, and donors. In 2006, American economist, Paul Krugman, wrote about several important economic and political risks concerning US immigration policy. He began by acknowledging, “Immigration is an intensely painful topic for a liberal like myself, because it places basic principles in conflict.” Denial about the presence and importance of these conflicting values has led to the political impasse that currently characterizes the US policy environment.

The Obama-Trump Divide

There is little in common that Barack Obama and Donald Trump share. But, both figures remain enigmatic and are understood in paradoxical ways. This complexity, which has produced much political turmoil in the US, reflects inadequate representations of today’s American values and the many contradictions that define it. Obama and Trump represent — as reflections of broader American characteristics — values that seem mutually incompatible. Yet, both Obama and Trump are undeniably American products (though, Trump may disagree).

The Obama Gestalt

As a figure in America’s political mythology and broader cultural imagination, Barack Obama brings unprecedented meaning in ways that challenge existing ideals. While he is regarded as the first black president, Obama represents not simply the political redemption of Africans and African-Americans in America but also the pacification of the very racial anxiety that has plagued American history. His father was a Kenyan immigrant and his mother has extended roots in the US, with known ancestors from the seventeenth century.

Obama’s parents never married and he was, largely, raised by his Kansas-born grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii. He spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, a predominantly non-Christian part of the world. He grew up with stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana before familiarizing himself with The Bible. He learned about America from his mother, who was then serving as a development consultant in Indonesia. Obama’s self-empowerment represented a challenge to normative American values surrounding identity purity, and he grew restlessly aware of this into his adulthood. Despite these unconventionalities, Obama’s ascendency to the presidency is, as he notes, a story “that can only happen in America.”

Like his parents, who both pursued doctorate degrees, Obama recognized education as a vehicle for self-empowerment. As a student, Obama sought to resolve these perceived tensions about identity by indulging in the writings of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and others. Particularly, Malcolm X’s ideas about “repeated acts of self-creation”, as a means of reconciling personal turmoil, spoke to Obama. From this process of continual self-evolution, Obama recognized the wisdom of embracing and transcending his contradictions; that “Barack Obama” was more than the sum of his complex and conflicted identities.

This conviction — that we are more than the sum of our parts, or “E Pluribus Unum” — is echoed in Obama’s remarks throughout many speeches. It also marked the beginning of his rise to global stardom. He would repeat, as if a mantra, “We are more than a nation of red states and blue states; we are the United States of America.” Profoundly, Obama’s self-reconciliation was a reckoning with America’s legacy itself.

Coming from a largely post-racial paradigm, Obama has had an enigmatic and testing presence on the American psyche. His presidency exposed many tensions surrounding identity issues. Attention paid to LGBT rights, undocumented immigrants, income inequality, Black Lives Matter, and religious fundamentalist extremism are vivid examples of this. In many ways, Obama’s presidency, as a post-racial visionary leading a racist country, provoked these anxieties. Trump’s election should be understood as a convenient response to qualm this angst.

Trump’s Nostalgia Trumps

If Barack Obama is an archetype of an emergent American paradigm, then Donald Trump represents a latent archetype of a pre-existing perspective. Trump’s American roots are far younger than Obama’s — which is ironic, given Trump’s conspiracies about Obama.

Trump is a descendant of Germans on his father’s side and Scots on his mother’s side. His grandfather migrated to the United States from Bavaria at the age of 16 in 1885. His mother migrated from Scotland to the US at the age of 18 in 1930. Trump, like Obama, had one parent who was an immigrant. Unlike Obama, Trump has had three marriages, two of which were to immigrant women from Eastern Europe.

Both of Trump’s parents were Christians, his father being Lutheran and his mother affiliated with the Church of Scotland. Trump’s ancestry reflects the historical ambitions of white Protestants seeking settlement in the United States for god, glory, and gold. Unlike the Obamas, the Trumps have been less academically inclined. Trump’s grandfather had no formal education. Trump’s father earned a high school diploma. Trump himself earned a bachelor’s degree.

Much of the Trumps’ wealth was established by Fred Trump’s real estate ventures in Queens, New York. Donald Trump furthered this legacy by delving into Manhattan real estate, entertainment, casinos, and other ventures, many of which went bankrupt. Throughout his financial endeavours, Trump sought to develop a media brand for himself — an inclination that proved successful during his presidential campaign. Since the 1980s, Trump has had a persistent presence in American popular culture.

Numerous cameos and appearances on entertainment and news programming, including a starring role in a primetime network television show, throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s demonstrates the “Trump” brand as a mediated symbol of success, wealth, and elitism. Being a distinctly cultural figure in America, Trump has adapted his presence to changing media. He reflects both changing times and a time that has since passed — a recognizable figure in an increasingly unrecognizable America. For such reasons, Fareed Zakaria notes a correlation between the decline of White American groups and the political emergence of Donald Trump.

Trump is simultaneously an institution and an individual who thrives on renegotiating his meaning and ideas. He is both densely filtered and indiscreetly unfiltered. His ideology is emotional, not intellectual, and thrives to be predictably unpredictable. A ubiquitous presence that is eerily inaccessible, unconventional and uncompromising, beholden only to his instincts. Trump is understood as prejudiced, self-contradictory, gluttonous, proud, entitled, opportunistic, and present-minded. But, couldn’t today’s America be described the same way? Obama agrees that, “you get the politicians you deserve.”

Inheritance of Contradictions

As densely complex figures burdened with contradictory meanings, both Obama and Trump have advocated policies and decisions that contradict their purported ideas about American values, as expressed in immigration policies. This reflects the broader conflict in the popular imagination about America’s vision for itself going forward. Today, immigration is a highly partisan issue due to a demographic divergence between the two major political parties.

Entering the twenty-first century, terrorism and the Internet reorganized and restructured immigration policy and enforcement in the US. In the wake of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established and took on nearly all functions of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Starting in 2002, legislation required a digital information system be used for admitting and removing immigrants. A visa entry-exit system, known as US-VISIT, was also mandated.

Failure to pass immigration policy reform during the Bush administration led to mandating the construction of a 700-mile-long double-layered fence at the US Southwest border in 2006. Largely due to funding, this construction remains incomplete.

Notably, President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, allowing young adults (ages 15 to 30) brought to the US illegally to apply for temporary deportation relief and a two-year work permit. Roughly 665,000 applicants had been approved for DACA by March 2015. In 2014, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) executive action allowed unauthorized immigrant parents who had lived in the US for at least five years and have children who are US citizens or legal permanent residents to apply for deportation relief and a three-year work permit. DACA was also extended to any unauthorized immigrant who entered the US illegally as a child.

Trump has sought to roll back many policies set by the Obama administration, like DAPA and DACA. His brand of immigration policy is historically unique because it targets legal immigrants in addition to undocumented immigrants. A month into President Trump’s term, the DHS issued memos granting US officials with greater latitude to target the 11 million undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Just this year, Republican legislators have sought to curb the number of legal immigrants and refugees allowed into the US. Although immigration has become a central issue to their party’s agenda, few Republicans represent places with large immigrant populations. Often citing unemployment control as motive for reform, a study by the National Academy of Sciences found “little evidence” that increased immigration significantly affected unemployment levels for native-born workers. The notion that any gains for foreign interests means losses for domestic workers, often cited by Republicans, has been challenged by technology companies, like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Intel — who rely on immigrant employees — in a legal brief opposing President Trump’s travel ban.

Though Trump’s focus on legal immigration is peculiar, it is not ahistorical. In 1970, 4.7 per cent of the US population was foreign-born, whereas today it’s 13.4 percent. Such a large shift in relatively short time would naturally cause “some anxiety,” Fareed Zakaria notes. And, immigration was the biggest divergence on policy among people who voted for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and people who also voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

President Obama’s adoption of aggressive deportation policies and activities has immigration courts, which review deportation cases, overwhelmed immigration courts, which review deportation cases. President Trump has, since, extended the criteria for deportations and directed the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to subject arrestees to quicker deportation. Coupled with personnel changes, the immigration courts are facing a worse crisis with these new policies. Though Obama’s policies emphasized a push for the legalization of undocumented immigrants, Trump’s are markedly different in their emphasis on expediting deportations. Having made border security a priority during his campaign, Trump has certainly proved effective in deterring border crossings (but, he exaggerates this fact).

President Trump also faces a reluctant Congress exhausted with his focus to reverse policies set by the Obama administration. In August of this year, the president announced his intentions to cut legal immigration by half and restructure immigration policy around a merit-based system which critics have described as racially and ethnically discriminatory.

Paradox of Compassion

The resolution of immigration policy demands reckoning with America’s virtues and vices; America’s long and complicated history of exclusion and inclusion, contradictions between cultural values and political actions; and listening to the dissimilar voices of an increasingly diverse America. Evergreen solutions like greater public participation and accountability in policymaking can always help such a process. But, insistence on gridlock about immigration policy, and the values underlying them, does little to solve the tension between national unity and identity. Fareed Zakaria importantly notes that the country’s motto, “E pluribus unum” — out of many, one — is not the other way around.

The aversion to difference — of bodies on the Right and of minds on the Left — only aggravates intolerant attitudes and behaviours across the political spectrum. The crisis of spirit, suggested earlier by Kennedy’s words, is in fact a crisis of compassion. As America’s understanding of itself has complicated, its imagination is overwhelmed by an image of itself it no longer recognizes (or needs). America is simultaneously Obama and Trump. Popular opinion suggests embarrassment that the country transitioned from a president like Obama to one like Trump. But, such a transition truly indicates the breadth and extent of American identity, which according to Abraham Lincoln, has always been an “immortal emblem of humanity.”

Speaking about the merits of America’s strength at Edwardsville, Illinois in 1858, Lincoln held that “[America’s] defense is the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere.” If America is founded on a compassionate view of humanity’s entitlement to liberty, then America does not practice as it preaches, as demonstrated by US policy on immigration. Countless solutions of varying scale exist for policymakers, civil society actors, industry leaders, community organizers, and others to improve American immigration policy and enforcement. But, perhaps statutory solutions aren’t the only option for making positive change. What about a spiritual solution? In this light, I turn to Barack Obama who once reflected, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants.”



Aarshin Karande

AI Ethics & Psychopolitics — Studies at Cambridge. Formerly at LSE, Oxford, and UW Bothell. Indian Classical musician.