America has long been a global leader economically, politically, and ideologically. Its greatness is bound to the founding ideals of acceptance, freedom, equality, and justice. The rhetoric and election of Donald Trump has signaled a significant ideological change in how America approaches issues at home and abroad. The Trump administration's "America First" policy highlights the growing nationalist sentiment in the United States and promises that going forward, policies and funding will prioritize the immediate needs of America. However, the ideology and policies go against the fundamental pillars of acceptance, freedom, equality, and justice that truly define American prosperity.
The current administration and its supporters ultimately blame immigrants for much of the economic, political, and social problems that plague America. Our president has promised to build a wall on the southern border to stem the tide of immigration from Mexico. He has plans to defund the refugee program. Through immigration bans, he has singled out Muslim immigrants in order to protect Americans from terrorism.
I am beginning to see the consequences of America First. Growing up, my classmates and I proclaimed our nation to be "indivisible with liberty and justice for all." I have always taken pride in knowing that I live in a nation that values these ideals. Yet, I can't say these words with sincerity when my president speaks about banning Muslim immigration and defunding programs that aid refugees. I do not see "liberty and justice for all" in plans to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, Central Americans, and others seeking freedom and a better life. I do not feel pride when reading about plans to limit legal immigration, thus tearing families apart. If we truly believed in freedom, equality, and justice for all, then we would create thoughtful immigration policies that do not target the most vulnerable of humankind. It has become evident to me that "America First" degrades American values and weakens the nation.
Trump justifies his immigration policies by saying that they will keep out dangers from abroad. The problem is that these proposed "dangers" are people, and by placing blame on groups, countries, and entire races, we forget that they are people. In this way, "America First" promotes nationalist fervor and xenophobia, which in turn justifies hate and violence. Tara Raghuveer is an Indian immigrant who now serves as the deputy director at the National Partnership for New Americans. In a Time magazine article she describes the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was mistakenly identified as Middle Eastern and shot by a white man. The murder of Kuchibhotla is one hate crime among many in the name of nationalism and xenophobia. "These 'America First' policies do not condemn hate, they authorize it," Raghuveer told Time.
Our nation has been here before. We will undoubtedly look back at this time with the same shame that we feel about the way we treated Native Americans, Irish, Jewish, and Japanese people in the name of nationalism. Dr. Seuss illustrated this point well in a comic published in the early 1940s in the newspaper PM. A mother wears a shirt that states "America First" and reads a book titled Adolf the Wolf to her two terrified children. The caption reads, " ... and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones ... But those were Foreign Children and it really didn't matter." The comic illustrates that "America First" was used to justify anti-semitism in America during WWII. This historical context reveals its consequences—promoting xenophobia while degrading the values that Americans so proudly proclaim to have.
"America First" puts the short-term needs of the power hungry before the lasting needs of future Americans, and humankind. Pushing away immigrants and crafting discriminatory policies may make America seemingly more powerful, but, in reality, it is, and will continue to become, a fractured nation brimming with hostility and hatred. I see the effects of "America First" in my own community. I see them in community protests. I see classmates recoil at students wearing "Make America Great Again" hats. I see fear in the eyes of my peers at the word "deportation." Limiting immigration means that I will be going to college with a less diverse and more fearful student population.
Maria Larios-Horton has witnessed this firsthand as a former undocumented youth and a current administrator for the Santa Barbara Unified School District working with English learner and migrant students and parents. She told me that current immigration policies have created paralyzing fear among immigrant youth.
"The administration is targeting this group of people—who already have to deal with the struggles of adolescence, being a person of color, and the complexities of family and economic status," she said. America is not benefiting from the resiliency, determination, and potential of this group, Larios-Horton said, because of the fear and trauma they experience due to these policies.
She said that her path to citizenship was long, painful, and expensive. Although she benefited from former President Ronald Reagan's amnesty program, she fears there is now "no hope of a pathway" for this generation of immigrants. Establishing a very clear pathway to citizenship as the highest-priority step toward mending this issue, Larios-Horton said.
In her work, she witnesses both segregation and integration within student populations. She said that she's observed that segregation results in lack of diversity—race, ethnicity, and background—which "leads to misunderstanding and bias against others." It is my view that the political and social problems immigrants are accused of bringing to America are actually issues created by reactionary politicians and Americans who shelter themselves from diversity and therefore lack understanding and compassion for immigrants. For example, states with the most immigrants per capita, like California and New York, are states with a great diversity of perspectives. They tend to be the most accepting of immigrants because of the increased understanding, compassion, and wisdom that results from living in a diverse environment. On the other hand, states with the smallest immigrant populations like North Dakota and Iowa are notably most anti-immigration due to a lack of understanding that comes from living isolated from the perspectives of others.
I am tired of the hypocrisy of "America First" policies. I feel the effects in my student community, and I know that my education would not be as rich or "American" without my foreign-born peers. "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty overlooking the Atlantic: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... ." These are words that have welcomed immigrants for more than a century. Making more compassionate policies, including a clear pathway to citizenship, will benefit the United States by allowing that diversity of perspective to continue to empower our nation and world.
I realize that immigration is a complicated issue, and that a certain amount of control and regulation is necessary. The American economist Adam Ozimek said that opening our borders would create massive change in the factors that determine a nation's wealth: "physical capital, human capital, technology, social capital, and institutions." While it is not feasible to completely open our borders, we cannot resort to building walls. According to Ozimek, "We can easily absorb significantly more immigrants than we do right now." Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that "legalization of unauthorized workers would increase their contribution to 3.6 percent of private-sector GDP." Not only would a rational and dependable pathway provide clarity and hope for immigrants to become citizens, but it would also strengthen the nation economically.
Whenever the basic tenets of human kindness are second or last, youth are invariably hurt the most. Hurt now, because we see those who could be our friends as the other. We learn how to discriminate, how to look away from those in need, how to characterize ourselves solely by race and borders. We will be hurt later when our nationalist policies lead to domestic and global conflict, and we will not know how to pick up the pieces because we will be so divided and unequal. Supporting immigrants is our duty as humans and as Americans. Empowering immigrants will empower our nation. Accepting immigrants builds a wall against hate. Δ
Audrey McClish is a junior at Morro Bay High School. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org write something for publication and email it to