In 1620, a group of refugees, persecuted because of their religious faith, set forth from Plymouth, England, for the "New World" — which was, of course, not so new to the Indigenous people living there. Despite having no documented invitations from the inhabitants of the nations in which they intended to settle (and despite historical evidence that suggests the local people had already suffered greatly at the hands of previous newcomers), we are this week still celebrating the fact that the Wampanoag people welcomed those we now call Pilgrims to this land, and helped them adjust to living here.
But outside of their Thanksgiving tables, this administration is hardly paying homage to this most fundamental part of America's origin story: We are not just a nation of immigrants, but we also were founded by a group of refugees. Instead, President Donald Trump has declared that this country is full, particularly to more refugees.
He said it during a trip to the southern border in April, during a speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition this spring, in tweets to his 59.6 million followers, and in a rally in May. Doing so served two purposes: It was a rallying cry to solidify his base; and a declaration to refugees and asylum-seekers to stay away. And while it’s true our immigration system is strained — due in part to the president’s efforts to sabotage it — it’s a lie to say we can’t accommodate anyone else.
Nonetheless, the administration is going to extraordinary lengths to use policy to prop up this propaganda. Trump recently moved to drastically restrict the number of refugees our nation accepts, down to 18,000 in fiscal year 2020. It's the lowest number of refugees accepted since the program was established in 1980, 78 percent lower than the 85,000 cap set by President Barack Obama.
But our country isn’t “full”; our president is just full of it.
A declining birthrate combined with an aging population have helped slow U.S. population growth to levels not seen since the Great Depression. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t even break into the top 100 most densely populated countries worldwide, ranked only at 146 between Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan. But Trump’s comments about the U.S. being “full” clearly weren’t rooted in facts or data, but rather his own perception of American attitudes toward immigration.
Even then, the president is wrong.
While the president’s base supports his anti-immigrant agenda, a majority of Americans strongly disagree with both his radical perspective and the draconian tactics used by his administration. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 75 percent of respondents believed immigration was good for the country. And a new Gallup poll on attitudes about Central American refugees revealed that 57 percent of Americans — with increased approval from Republicans and independents — support taking them in and making this country their home.
As a congressman, I’m all too familiar with the president’s penchant for dog whistle rhetoric and false assertions. And I try — in an effort to stay sane — not to take any of what he says to heart. But as a Latino representing the heart of Los Angeles, his comments about refugees and immigrants in general continue to strike a personal chord.
My parents, who once lived in a one-room adobe house in Mexico, came to the United States in search of opportunity. They both worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. My mother was a domestic worker by day and a nursing home laundry attendant at night and on weekends. My father was a bracero — a farmworker — and cooked at various restaurants across Southern California. They raised six children and helped put most of us through college.
I believe in America’s promise that if you come here, believe in our values, and contribute to our society, you can call this country your home. That promise was upheld for my sister, who was granted citizenship last year. It was upheld for my other siblings, who became educators and artists. And that promise was upheld for my parents, who gave their youngest the opportunity to go to school and eventually become a member of Congress.
I intend to help keep that promise for future generations.
The spirit of Trump’s assertion that our country is full — and that of remarks he’s previously made — have been echoed throughout the world by dictators of the past and far-right extremists of today. The phrase evokes images of hundreds of Jewish refugees murdered in concentration camps after their German ocean liner, the SS St. Louis, was turned away by the U.S. in 1939. It takes us back to 2014 when Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party — whose platform is “a complete halt to immigration” — declared “our country’s full, we’ll shut the door,” to those escaping unimaginable violence. And the president’s portrayal of immigration as an “invasion” reminds us of the hate-filled manifesto of the Australian man who executed 49 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, after referring to Muslims as “invaders” who "seek to occupy my peoples lands.”
Contrary to the Trump administration’s efforts to brand them as such, refugees do not represent a threat to national security, nor are they drains on our country’s social safety net programs. Not only are they the most intensively vetted population to enter the U.S., subjected to years of security screenings including thorough interviews, background checks and biometric data collection, but they also help grow our local and national economies and fill critical gaps in our labor market. You’d think someone who touts himself as a businessman would appreciate the fact that nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants or their children — but that would obviously undermine the false narratives he used to propel him into the White House.
Clearly, policy matters, particularly when you’re the president, but the words used to promote such policy can often be just as important. The rhetoric of our leaders should remind us of our shared values — justice, tolerance and empathy — that make the U.S. a beacon of hope around the world.
Whether Trump likes it or not, refugees were here at the start of the American experiment and have inextricably woven themselves into the tapestry of this country. And, for that, I am truly thankful.