Donald Trump, whose presidency officially came to a close last month, deepened divisions across communities with high foreign-born populations by perpetuating a narrative of "good" and "bad" immigrants, critics say.
Now, immigration advocates say President Joe Biden will have to act to implement policies to undo that rift.
“I implore the Biden administration to live up to its call for unity by precisely not using this trick of dividing us into accepting seats at the table for some and scraps for others,” Thi Bui, a Vietnamese American author and activist told NBC Asian America.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the civic engagement nonprofit AAPI Data, said that the shifts seen in certain segments of the refugee population, particularly the Vietnamese community, can in part be explained by the manner in which Trump pushed an “us versus them” narrative into the zeitgeist during the 2016 election.
“Some of that might have predated Trump,” Ramakrishnan said, adding, however, that “Trump essentially introduced that kind of rhetoric and policy into the political bloodstream in 2016.”
Data from that election cycle shows that the Vietnamese community, made up predominantly of refugees, favored Hilary Clinton over Trump. A closer look at that AAPI Data surveyreveals that in spite of leaning Democratic, Vietnamese Americans were already among the least likely of any Asian American group to support accepting Syrian refugees, with more than a third indicating opposition to it.
More than a third of another predominantly refugee community, Cambodian Americans, reported support for a Muslim ban. Over the next four years, with heavy crackdowns on legal and illegal immigration as well as divisive rhetoric from the administration, the community would shift closer to Trump. And by the 2020 election cycle, polling data showed Vietnamese Americans had reversed their leftward lean.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump said he would be comfortable with personally telling Syrian children their families are not welcome in the U.S. And after he was elected, he followed through on a promise to drastically cut refugee acceptance to an all-time low. In the 2020 campaign, Trump tweeted that Biden’s plan to surge refugee admissions would open “the floodgates to Radical Islamic Terror.”
In announcing his candidacy in 2015, Trump attacked immigrants from Mexico, claiming “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In discussing immigration from Africa in 2018, Trump reportedly asked why America would want immigrants from "all these s---hole countries." He added that the U.S., instead, should have more people coming in from places like Norway.
Bui said that for Biden to repair some of the divisions within communities, the administration should begin by devising policies with the lowest income, undocumented, and incarcerated populations in mind.
Within the first 100 days, she said the president should review economic relief plans and to review immigration enforcement “with the knowledge that there are people watching for that divisive narrative, and to not use it as a way to cut corners, save money or appease the anti-immigrant agenda of the other side.”
Phi Nguyen, director of litigation at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, similarly recommended that the Biden administration should implement policies that do not treat immigrants differently based on whether they are perceived as “good” or “bad.”
She noted that thus far, the new president’s executive order that set the Immigration Customs Enforcement priorities currently prioritizes deporting immigrants with certain criminal convictions. Such policies do not help disrupt the good versus bad immigrant narrative.
“Any immigration relief or policy that carves out individuals because of criminal convictions helps to perpetuate the false narrative about who belongs here and who doesn’t,” she said.
Why experts say some communities were uniquely vulnerable to Trump’s divisive rhetoric
Advocates say that the circumstances of many immigrants, who are not yet certain of stability in their new country, could make them more susceptible to buying into the divisive framing of immigrant groups. Bui explained that she’s found that some Southeast Asian refugees, particularly those in the Vietnamese community, feel the need to latch onto those in power and who have control over their lives, particularly when they’re grappling with scarcity and insecurity in America.
“I think that's one reason why immigrants sometimes side with the bullies, or the white supremacists, instead of finding power in the vast numbers of immigrants that do live in America,” she said. “They fall prey to the divisiveness of good immigrants versus bad immigrants rhetoric, when that rhetoric is doled out by those in power. It's easy psychology to tell people: 'You guys are the good ones. You're the exceptions. You're cool, we'll let you stay as long as you side with us on trying to keep these other people out.’”
Nguyen said that for many immigrants or refugees, the response to such rhetoric is fear-based and can lead to distancing oneself as much as possible from the community that is being “othered,” she said.
She noted that this is why some Southeast Asian Americans applauded the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s crackdown on those in the community with deportation orders. In two fiscal years under the Trump administration, the deportation of Cambodian nationals increased by 279 percent. Some saw those facing repatriation as refugees who were given a chance to do things "the right way" but failed, Nguyen said.
“This administration was also really good at making you fearful of things,” Bui added. “So if you're fearful of your security, and then you're given a scapegoat, which is other immigrants who are trying to come in and ‘take your stuff,’ that's something to latch on to.”
Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, noted that party identification could play a role in how vulnerable some people are to divisive immigrant rhetoric. Vietnamese refugees, a highly selective anti-communist group who are shaped by their unique position in the Vietnam war, for example, allied themselves most closely with the U.S. and those on the right, Ong said. And thus, for decades, Vietnamese Americans have been most strongly identified with the Republican Party.
“Consequently, many Vietnamese Americans are likely to buy into a simplistic American nationalistic narrative,” he said.
Another issue that the many Asian immigrant groups have dealt with for some time is inadequate access to fair, accurate sources of information, Bui said.
Mainstream media outlets often neglect these communities and the issues important to them. The Vietnamese community, for example, has few sources that are in their language and the ones that are are often bloggers and personalities who are heavily biased toward Trump and perpetuate the same divisive rhetoric among immigrants.
Ramakrishnan noted that other segments of some Asian American groups, like Indian and Chinese Americans, were similarly vulnerable to the divisive rhetoric due to an incomplete understanding of their own communities.
While polling showed Indian Americans were largely in support of Biden, Trump did make a dent in the community, drawing more support from the group compared to the previous election. And Trump’s promise of crackdowns on undocumented immigrants was well received by the crowd at a rally in Houston in September 2019 with India's contentious prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Ramakrishnan said he suspects those who were moved by Trump’s comments do not have a firm grasp of just how many undocumented immigrants belong to their own community.
“When Trump attended the 'Howdy, Modi' rally in Houston he was railing against illegal immigrants,” he said. “The thing is, it's not reflective of the majority of Indian American opinion, but for those who hold those views, they don't realize how many undocumented Indian Americans there are, in the U.S. — over 400,000.”
Similarly, Chinese Americans showed the most ambivalence to offering a pathway to citizenship compared to all other Asian groups, at 22 percent. However, the group has the second-highest number of undocumented of any Asian American community.
“The good immigrant, bad immigrant narrative, it's a myth. You have so many undocumented within our communities, 1 out of every 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented,” Ramakrishnan said. “It's something that is deep rooted. It's not necessarily based on an understanding of how immigration actually works and how significant the undocumented population is among Asian Americans. But it makes Asian Americans more prey to this rhetoric.”
How groups have tried to unify their communities
Community groups have taken it upon themselves, for years, to attempt to beat back such insidious rhetoric and many have found success. Citing projects like Viet Fact Check, started by the nonprofit PIVOT, or the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, that aim to fight misinformation with fact-checked, source-verified analysis in both English and Vietnamese, Bui said that many misconceptions perpetuated by the idea that some are unworthy of being in the U.S. can be put to rest with aggressive efforts around culturally and linguistically accessible education campaigns.
Nguyen said that in Georgia, different immigrant communities have historically formed coalitions to take on local anti-immigrant laws and policies. And in the most recent election cycle, Asian Americans showed up to the ballot box in record numbers, helping to flip the state blue. Vietnamese Americans in the state voted overwhelmingly for Biden, at 61 percent. It underscored the importance of showing immigrant and refugee communities that anti-immigrant laws and policies, even those that purport to target "bad immigrants," will hurt all immigrant communities — as they are rooted in nativism, she said.
“I don't think that people are all that lost,” Bui said. “They're not a lost cause. They just have to be reached.”
The categorization of immigrants into worthy/unworthy has been baked into American history for over a century. Trump’s rhetoric can be traced to legislation passed in 1924, when a discriminatory quota allocated immigrant visas based on country of origin. Western countries were heavily favored, with Germany and the United Kingdom receiving the most slots at the time, given roughly 50,000 and 34,000 visas, respectively. In contrast, each country in Asia was allocated 100 slots.
The Obama administration was criticized by immigration advocates for perpetuating a similar framing of immigrants with his plan to deport “felons not families.” But Bui said that Trump brought the rhetoric to new heights.
“If you look at their rhetoric and their actions, yes the Obama administration at one point held the record for deportations and there was the divisiveness of ‘felons, not families,’” Bui said. “And then there's Trump, who was just very upfront about, ‘why do we take people from s---hole countries?’ The rhetoric was really crass and very anti-immigrant.”