President-elect of the United States Joseph Biden called for national unity in his victory speech on November 7.

He said, “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

While this election was seemingly lost and won on the coronavirus and the economy, deep-seated cultural divides remain. Those divides were evident in how certain groups voted up and down ballot—and in the rhetorical battles that have persisted in the lead up to the election.

Immigration is becoming a solid front in America’s culture wars and that placement is hindering our ability to make genuine policy progress.

These cultural divides are driven by a public, whose political and social identities are fusing and hardening. Thanks to social media, we are sharing, liking, and pushing out our views on political and policy developments daily to those who agree with us.

Collecting affirmations rather than information is driving our media habits.

This has made policy feel deeply personal for many. When people disagree with us, it can feel like an attack on our values, morals, and personhood. With these dynamics at play, it is increasingly hard for us to listen and understand those who hold opposing viewpoints.

This election cycle also reminded us that our methods for understanding public opinion, communicating policy choices, and bringing people together to find common solutions are weak and insufficient. We must improve how we investigate public attitudes and understand the core of people’s views and values in order to engage them effectively.

If we do not begin to co-create common ground solutions, immigration will remain the rope in an emotional tug of war where both sides dig in their heels—while millions suffer the consequences.

We cannot continue to be another front in America’s culture wars. Instead, we need to work to reshape the public’s understanding of immigration as a fundamentally American tradition—as part of what makes us a strong and resilient nation. We must replace the zero-sum narratives that have taken hold and replace them with unifying and humanizing narratives of America.

How do we accomplish this?

1. We end the dehumanization.

If we can’t see each other’s humanity, we won’t want to make the world more just for one another and we won’t be able to work together.

Using dehumanizing language to describe someone—whether based on their immigration status, race, religion, or political party—comes too easy these days. It’s up to each of us to become role models for change.

2. We must recognize that changing our culture is a necessary ingredient to changing our laws and policies.

  • We must become truly intersectional in our approaches by organizing around our common struggles in ways that bridge multiple identities in order to build trust and shared purpose to achieve our goals. This approach is already being employed by groups organizing for change like People’s Action, Welcoming America, and the YMCA, to name a few.
  • We must center the local to get good national policy. A more socially cohesive and connected populace creates the ripest breeding ground for good and generous policy. We know the backbone institutions of American life exist at the local level and connect us socially and allow us to grow our sense of mutual trust and reliance. If I know and care about my neighbors, I will be more invested in our collective future.
  • We need better research. At best, public opinion polling tells us where people fall on an issue in terms of support. However, it does not capture the “why” or look at how people have come to hold those opinions and positions. Deeper behavioral and mental models research can illuminate the why and the how and the role of values, beliefs, and life experiences in shaping opinions. This type of information is useful in devising effective persuasion strategies.

3. We must realize that immigration does not always have to stand alone in the policy debate.

Our solutions around immigration do not have to be advanced alone. Solutions that help all Americans can and should help immigrants and refugees. We have to be part of the remedies all Americans need right now to rebuild our economy, healthcare, justice system, and our relationship with other nations. If we want all of America to stand with us, we have to stand with all of America.

We will still be unpacking what this election means for immigration policy for weeks to come, but we can and should begin to imagine the ways immigration policy can be a tool for national unity and prosperity.

Photo by Paul Weaver on Unsplash

This article is the first post in a series that will explore the future of immigration in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.