DACA is About Being a ‘Real American’

This article was originally published on The Hill

President Trump’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, at first blush, flies in the face of popular will. If widespread criticism was not evidence enough, public opinion polling shows a consistent and increasing supermajority support for the program and similar concepts (The Hill).

Our own recent Ipsos polls show a nearly universal support for DACA across party lines. Most Americans believe that individuals who qualify for DACA-like programs should be allowed to live and work in the United States. Beyond the general public, most elites also support continuation of DACA with leaders from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and business community—all speaking up on behalf of dreamers.

So, what explains Trump’s action on DACA?

Many attribute the policy reversal to cynical politics at its worst: Trump is catering to his highly nativist, anti-immigrant base (New Yorker). Put simply, Trump is tossing red meat to his base to keep them in his corner. Others argue that Trump’s actions reflect his character—one short on empathy and strong on narcissism (Brookings). In this telling, Trump is simply holding up a campaign promise and does not care who it hurts. Still others see Trump’s action as procedural: nothing more than righting Obama’s original sin by kicking the issue back to Congress. (New York Times).

my mind, these perspectives all miss the point. While they may all contain a kernel of truth, there is a deeper, more existential issue at play.  DACA represents one of America’s fundamental fault lines: who is a real American?  For many Republicans, particularly for supporters of Donald Trump, immigrants are simply not real Americans.  This is, for them, an elementary truth.

The polling data on this is striking: only 35% of Republicans (versus 57% of Democrats) see “immigrants” as being “real Americans”. Here let us be clear: we are not talking about illegal immigrants but all immigrants! The gap between Republicans and Democrats on if ‘immigrants are real Americans’ is larger than any other demographic.

This is telling.   Indeed, a core piece of American identity for many Republican is about being native born.  This remembers the definition of identity employed by nationalist movements to define citizenship as being born of a specific ‘race’ against the broader concept of jus soli which includes all those living in a given place (native born plus residents of foreign origin).  Aspirationally, if not always truthfully, the United States has aspired to be a jus soli republic.  But the present debate points to the tension we have always had about who we are as a people.  

Even more significant, only 20% of Republicans (versus 64% of Democrats) see people who “believe in open borders” as being real Americans.  Similarly, almost two-thrids of Republicans see someone who believes in “restricting immigrations” as being American, while only a quarter of Democrats.  Yes, that is right!  Your ideological orientation towards immigration makes you an outsider for many Republicans.

That said, there is consensus across partisan lines on other dimensions.  For many, real Americans include those who “served in the military” and “believe in free speech”.  George Washington is a real American; Robert E. Lee, less so.

However, as the polling suggests, there is little consensus on immigration.  Indeed, our relative position on the issue does not simply reflect different opinions on policy but rather a fundamental understanding of who is American.

Extending this logic, many Republicans probably do not see DACA recipients as real Americans.  They might speak our language flawlessly and love “baseball and apple pie” just like us.  But, by being immigrants, “Dreamers” are little more than “the other”.

At a broader level, the polling data presented here brings into relief the competing beliefs about how we organize ourselvesin a democratic society.  For many social scientists and political theorists, the concept of “being an American” is wholely unique in human history because it is exclusively an ideological concept (Lipset). If you are here and believe in the American creed or American dream, you are an American. Only in America can someone be “Un-american” in contrast to countries where citizenship is viewed more as heredity.  Indeed, it would be silly for us to think of someone being “un-British” or “Un-German”.

Implicit to this understanding of being American are a set of universally shared beliefs independent of demographic or political persuasion—a unifying American ideology.  We saw some of this consensus at a symbolic level in the data: belief in free speech, knowledge of the pledge of allegiance among others.  However, it is worrisome that we see huge divisions by party in how Americans are defined along racial/ethnic as well as ideological lines.

This points to the central challenge of our time. If Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on what constitutes an American, how will can we come to consensus on the big issues of our day?