How to Have an Immigration Conversation During the Holidays That’s Unifying, Not Polarizing

Updated Dec. 2 at 10:22 a.m. PT.

This holiday season is a chance to start new traditions, restore our values, and engage in new and thoughtful conversations on the things that matter most. 

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A pro-immigration demonstration on Martin Luther King Day. Two-thirds of Americans say they are concerned about how unaccompanied children and separated families are treated at the border. (NDLA / Creative Commons)

The U.S. lifted its international travel ban last month, which means that many people are likely to be sitting down to various dinners with friends and family from all over the world this holiday. Those delightful moments of re-connecting, played out in dining rooms all over the country will be brought to you in large part by the success of the COVID-19 vaccines. While we are far from seeing the end of this pandemic, we can once more, with care, gather with our loved ones to celebrate the special moments of our lives.

I’d like to think that these gatherings will be both boisterous and gentle, free-flowing and forgiving, as we reinvent the ways we talk to each other across a crowded table. And because we are revisiting and rediscovering our old ways, it is a unique opportunity to change the focus and flow of many past conversations. In fact, this holiday could give us a chance to start over with a national conversation on immigration that is unifying, rather than polarizing.

Such a conversation starts with identifying shared values and employing active listening. I have found that many heated immigration conversations can be turned around by asking people about their own roots. What is their immigration story? What did their family experience? Do you know where they entered the U.S. or how they found a place to stay? These questions are valuable even if your friends and relatives are descended from enslaved peoples or are immigrants themselves, because all of us can get stuck in portraying new immigrants as somehow other or different from us. Probing our family origin stories creates the opportunity for noting similarities and asking questions, and sometimes providing answers on misinformation.

Many heated immigration conversations can be turned around by asking people about their own roots. What is their immigration story? What did their family experience? Do you know where they entered the U.S. or how they found a place to stay? 

This is also an opportunity to bring our values as feminists to the table. The immigration system was designed with single, male immigrants in mind, during a time when men journeyed to the U.S. first and sent for their families after they had become established—or in some cases, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act,  where men were prohibited from even bringing their families to the U.S. The contributions of women as heads of households and in many low-wage, but essential jobs, is often undervalued in the immigration debate—and yet finding a path forward to improve the lives of all women in the U.S. must include a conversation about immigration.

Right now, there are several excellent opportunities for finding common ground on immigration matters. The U.S. evacuation of Afghan allies and other vulnerable Afghans that began in August of this year has prompted an amazing outpouring of support for refugees. America cares about those who are oppressed and threatened, and those who have suffered greatly.  

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From 2005 to 2014, refugees in the United States contributed $63 billion more tax revenue than they cost in public benefits—more than U.S.-born citizens contributed. (Pxhere / Creative Commons)

Similarly, when asked about the plight of unaccompanied children and separated families, two-thirds of Americans say they are concerned about how these vulnerable groups are treated at the border. If you can reach agreement on these vital points—that Americans care about those who are vulnerable and in need—you have the basis for having a meaningful conversation about America’s response to the refugee crisis. And if your partners in conversation are confused by some of the myths often recounted about refugees, this excellent interview with refugee service providers offers thoughtful, value-driven responses as well as concise information on the worldwide refugee situation that can be a big help. 

If you can reach agreement on these vital points—that Americans care about those who are vulnerable and in need—you have the basis for having a meaningful conversation about America’s response to the refugee crisis. 

Similarly, the Build Back Better Act, despite its adoption along party lines, offers terrific tools for reframing the usual immigration debate. Because Build Back Better is not a comprehensive immigration reform bill—in fact, only about 15 of its 2500-plus pages covers immigration—it provides some context for understanding how improving our immigration system is interconnected with a much broader goal of creating more prosperity and a stronger safety net for all, particularly for women. These immigration provisions focus primarily on legal immigration, providing USCIS with more funds to process backlogs that delay legal immigrants from obtaining permanent status or reuniting with their families, increasing fees and surcharges to pay for other immigration needs, and the “recapture” of thousands of visas that were never used in past years. 

It also allows immigrants who were eligible for or had received visas but were blocked from entering the U.S. because of the Muslim ban or pandemic restrictions to reapply for admission. These provisions are all about restoring fairness, increasing efficiency and cleaning up backlogs.

The capstone provision is more ambitious, creating a temporary work program for millions of undocumented immigrants in the country prior to 2011. The original text, which would have created a path to citizenship for this group, was determined by the Senate parliamentarian to be outside the scope of the budget reconciliation process. Thus, despite widespread support for a path to citizenship, Build Back Better is offering a more temporary solution, but it would eliminate the threat of deportation for millions, reduce the likelihood of employers undercutting wages or abusing workers, and recognize the incredible contributions unauthorized immigrants make to the country every day. In each of these ways, it also creates a more equitable system for everyone. 

In essence, Build Back Better offers breathing room for the political process to come up with better solutions in the future. There is far more that must be done, including  significant reforms to our immigration enforcement system, but Senate passage of the Build Back Better Act, with its immigration provisions intact, would give the country a chance to start over.

And that is what we have this holiday season. A chance to start new traditions, an opportunity to restore our values, and a space for new, more thoughtful conversations on the things that matter most. 

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About

Mary Giovagnoli is the former executive director of Refugee Council USA.  She served as deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy in the Department of Homeland Security from January 2016 to January 2018.