“This is not who we are as a nation,” we hear as an answer to every racist rant and to every cruelty imposed in the name of country. “This is not who we are” — and yet it is who we are, undeniably, over centuries “of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak,” in the words of African American poet Langston Hughes. This ugliness is who we are, but only a part of who we are, and a part that can and must be overcome.
Langston Hughes refused to accept exclusion from his America, and insisted on reclaiming the dream:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
On Inauguration Day 2020, eloquent speeches, stirring songs, and poetry call us back to the vision that Langston Hughes claimed. President Joe Biden began his work with a bold immigration bill and a series of executive orders. His first-day actions signal a commitment to reverse the racist and xenophobic policies of the previous administration. Among these actions are executive orders directly related to immigration:
- Ordering that every person be counted in the Census — that immigrants are all persons under the law.
- Rescinding the Muslim bans of the previous administration.
- Rescinding the 2017 interior enforcement executive order that targeted millions of immigrants for deportation.
- Stopping construction of the border wall.
- Renewing Liberian Deferred Enforced Departure.
- Strengthening protections for DACA recipients.
President Biden also sent to Congress the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which establishes paths to citizenship for Dreamers, individuals with Temporary Protected Status, immigrant farmworkers, and undocumented immigrants living in the United States before Jan. 1. The legislation expands protection for refugees and asylum seekers, and promotes family reunification. It also strengthens protections for crime victims and victims of human trafficking and begins the much-needed process of improving the immigration court system.
Biden’s first-day actions signal a very good beginning, but only a beginning. During the months ahead, we face the hard work of making sure that a deeply divided Congress comes together and passes the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. During the days and months and years ahead, we also face the challenge of overcoming racism and xenophobia in all of their ugly manifestations.
The beginning of a new administration marks the beginning of a new chapter and the beginning of some very heavy lifting: the work that must be done to combat what one commentator today called the three pandemics of COVID-19, of racism, and of misinformation.
I believe that we can move forward together with this difficult but essential work. Facing our flaws and shortcomings does not mean giving up. Scathing as Langston Hughes’ indictment of our country’s failures was, he still maintained a fierce hope for the future:
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Veena Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
[Quotations from Langston Hughes, “Let America be America Again!” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.]
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