Americans want a new consensus on immigration. Divided government could deliver it.

In the final weeks of a bloody and bruising campaign, President Donald Trump looked past the center and played to his base, fomenting anti-immigrant hysteria in terms and tactics unprecedented for a White House in modern times. 

Not even the worst attack on American Jews in American history, one inspired by anti-immigrant sentiments, would stop the president’s musings about ending birthright citizenship and deploying 15,000 troops to the southern border to address migrants 900 miles away fleeing violence and poverty.

While the strategy kept the Senate in Republican hands, the president’s rhetoric failed to keep suburban districts in the conservative column. As a result, Democrats will lead the House. 

We are at a “bloody crossroads” of culture and politics, as Fareed Zakaria wrote last month. Which begs the question: with divided government, where do we go on immigration in 2019 and beyond? To answer that very question, earlier this year the group I lead — the National Immigration Forum — traveled to dozens of mostly rural and suburban towns for a series of “living room conversations” to learn firsthand how ordinary people are grappling with immigration in their own communities. 

Divided government can unite on immigration

We met with mothers and fathers across the income and education spectrum. We wanted to understand how we might change the conversation from one that polarizes to one that unifies. From Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Storm Lake, Iowa, we found that anxieties are palpable — but overcoming them is possible.

With a Democratic House, a Republican Senate, Trump in the White House and millions of Americans in suburban communities looking for consensus, we have a chance to unite the country around immigration and make policy reforms that improve the system.

First, we need to acknowledge the underlying anxiety. Fears around identity, culture, security and a changing economy course through American life. As we saw during this election cycle, Republicans seek to divide us on those fears, while Democrats wish they would go away. 

Left with nowhere to go are two-thirds of the American public — or, as More in Common’s research identified them, the “Exhausted Majority.” Their views on different issues range across the spectrum but they share certain characteristics: they are turned off by polarization, disregarded in the public discourse, and quite flexible in their views.

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Republicans should support work visas. They’d help business and ease the caravan problem.

These are the Americans we spoke to in our living room conversations across the country — the voters who sought a new direction. 

It’s when we listen to people’s immigration-related fears in order to rebuild a sense of curiosity and respect — in the congregation, the community center, and the Chamber of Commerce — that we can develop a common vision that ensures we can remain a nation of laws and a nation of grace. Because the policy reforms are broadly supported: fixing the U.S. legal immigration system, increasing security at our borders and ports of entry, and offering legal residency and eventual citizenship to those law-abiding, undocumented men and women already here working and contributing.

The challenges of making progress on this issue won’t abate. Global migration will continue to grow, our country will continue to diversify, and the economy will continue to evolve. Until political leadership can step up to this challenge, it will be the leadership of the pastor, the police chief, the local business owner that helps us see beyond the divisions.

Americans want consensus on immigration

That means acknowledging that millions of Americans are grappling with concerns around security, the economy, and culture. It means recognizing that people are wondering how America’s identity is being reshaped. And it means reminding the American public that immigrants have always been, and will continue to be, key drivers of a dynamic, growing and innovative economy, adding the cultural vitality and diversity that makes us the envy of the world. 

This is uncomfortable territory, but it’s not uncharted territory. From the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set out to limit Italians, Greeks, Poles, and certain Jews among others from coming to the U.S., we were scapegoating newcomers long before the 2018 midterms.

As the 2020 election nears, both parties will play to their geographic and structural advantages, further stressing a divided nation. Immigration can bridge the gap or widen it. Most voters yearn for leaders who will forge a new consensus on American immigration. That’s an opportunity we should take.

Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Overcome Prejudice and Meet the Challenge of American Immigration.” Follow him on Twitter: @anoorani

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