Kamala Harris’s immigrant parents and the real source of American greatness

Sen. Kamala Harris is the first Black woman on a presidential ticket, and the first Indian American of any gender in that role. She was explicitly chosen as a vice presidential candidate amid debate about her evident ambition to sit in the Oval Office — she’s not just a member of Joe Biden’s team but could also serve as his political successor and eventually the first woman president.

But Harris has another aspect of her identity with particular resonance in this moment, as the daughter of two immigrants — one from India and one from Jamaica — who traveled to the United States for education and made their lives here.

Her parents were surely not blind to America’s racial problems in the 1960s when they decided to pursue graduate studies at the University of California Berkeley, and they certainly were not indifferent to them upon arrival. Indeed, her parents met through their involvement in civil rights activism in Berkeley. Nonetheless, they wanted to come to the US, and they did well for themselves — both earning PhDs, and one eventually landing as a scientist at the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the other as an economics professor at the equally prestigious Stanford University. Their daughter is now an odds-on favorite to become the next vice president of the United States and is reasonably likely to be president herself someday.

Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris may have found unusual success, but the story of arrival, education, and intergenerational mobility is a familiar one. And in a profound way, stories like theirs are the greatness of America. It’s a country that people have flocked to from all around the world for hundreds of years, enhancing their own lives and the nation.

It’s this dimension of America that Donald Trump most purely rejects and denies. His success in politics has both diminished America’s greatness on its own terms and raised awareness of the darker corners of American life. It is tempting to accept that Trump’s dark and twisted vision of America is the authentic one.

Yet Harris’s story and the story of her family is real. Great people come to this country, and great things happen here. And her candidacy is an opportunity to tell the stories of the people and policies that have made America great.

Trump’s dark view of America

Donald Trump was famous long before he entered politics, which he ventured into by spreading racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s parentage. But if the Obama-bashing made him a hero to rank-and-file Republicans, what made him a sensation was the boldness with which he descended that Trump Tower escalator to complain that Mexico is “sending” rapists and murderers across the border.

This viscerally anti-immigrant energy powered his primary wins and helped him capture the general election votes of many secular, Northern, non-college educated whites who had cast ballots for Al Gore and John Kerry and Obama.

Anti-immigrant zeal has been a major through line of his administration. To characterize Trump as a leader of a presidential administration, you need to start with the fact that he seems largely uninterested in policy and in possession of no real convictions beyond a pursuit of self-interest.

But immigration is a major exception. On immigration he has enacted sweeping policy changes — even beyond his better-known moves of poaching military construction funds to build his wall or separating asylum-seeking children from their parents.

Note that all of this is about legal immigration, not “enforcing the law.” Trump and his team take the view that foreigners’ desire to move here should be viewed with suspicion. He wants whole categories of migrants ruled out and others subject to much tighter scrutiny.

And the anti-immigrant tilt is part and parcel of a darker view of America. When Trump talks about “taking the oil,” treats NATO as a protection racket, or explicitly cites arms sales as the key goal of the US-Saudi alliance, he sounds like he’s gotten his picture of the United States from old Rage Against the Machine songs while somehow getting the point totally backward.

Some on the left have gone so far as to hail Trump for exposing the truth about America. As Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote during the 2016 campaign, “Trump is refreshing to people who share his views, as well as to people who have always known that views like this exist.” His presidency has brought a level of racial invective to the Oval Office not seen for decades or more, but also given incredible new prominence to anti-racism as a political cause and fueled radicalism in the streets.

Biden’s brand of politics is more moderate, more appealing to swing voters, and more optimistic than that. But he’s a questionable messenger on personal identity grounds, and his record on discussing identity issues is abysmal — from calling Obama “articulate and bright and clean” in 2007 to just last week suggesting Black communities have no internal diversity. Harris, by contrast, is perfectly situated to tell an optimistic story about immigration, about identity, and about the United States of America.

Immigration for national greatness

It’s well known that the party of Lincoln has switched sides on racial issues in America. Less known is that a parallel shift has taken place on immigration.

In his 1864 State of the Union message, President Abraham Lincoln noted “the act passed at the last session for the encouragement of immigration” but urged the passage of amendments to make it even more effective at inducing people to sail to American shores.

“I regard our immigrants as one of the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war and its wastes of national strength and health,” Lincoln wrote, cautioning that he was not looking at immigrants as cannon fodder for the Civil War but as a long-term source of national strength. “All that is necessary is to secure the flow of that stream in its present fullness, and to that end the Government must in every way make it manifest that it neither needs nor designs to impose involuntary military service upon those who come from other lands to cast their lot in our country.”

This is a spirit that’s gone missing from contemporary arguments. Trump complains we are too kind to foreigners. Liberals respond that Trump is being too cruel. The cruelty is real. As Adam Serwer wrote, cruelty is the point. I’ll never forget John Kelly, Trump’s onetime chief of staff, dismissing concern about children taken from their parents with the line that they’ll go to “foster care or whatever.”

But, historically, allowing immigration to the United States has not been an act of charity. Abraham Lincoln, like George Washington before him, wanted to encourage it because they believed that migration to the United States was a mutually beneficial act. Self-interest brought Harris’s parents to the United States, and life in America treated them and their children well.

Research confirms that this still works. Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett find that unskilled immigrants increase their wages by between 2.6 times (if they come from Peru) to 7 times (if they come from Haiti). Clemens finds that more-skilled workers end up at the high end of that range, with Indian computer programmers scoring a six-fold wage increase if they get a work visa. And the dream of intergenerational mobility is alive, with Ran Abramitzky, Leah Platt Boustan, Elisa Jácome, and Santiago Pérez finding that today — just as in the past — children of immigrants generally experience greater socioeconomic success than they themselves do.

Despite America’s flaws, people clamor to move here and often find success. That speaks well of Americans, and it’s part of why the country has flourished.

In a July speech about growing tensions with China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Americans not to accept national decline. “We just need to believe,” he said, noting that “people aren’t desperate to settle in China.”

It’s a good point, but one Trump’s administration seems to have no appreciation of; the government is busy trying to keep people like Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris from moving here. That’s a shame, not just for the immigrants excluded but for America as a whole. The country could compete much more effectively with China if it took advantage of Pompeo’s insight to help grow our population. A proudly American daughter of immigrants from two different continents could be the perfect person to make the case for a more inclusive and more optimistic vision of national greatness.


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