How Biden can undo the divisions Trump deepened in immigrant communities

By Kimmy Yam, NBC News |

Donald Trump, whose presidency officially came to a close last month, deepened divisions across communities with high foreign-born populations by perpetuating a narrative of "good" and "bad" immigrants, critics say.

Now, immigration advocates say President Joe Biden will have to act to implement policies to undo that rift.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the civic engagement nonprofit AAPI Data, said that the shifts seen in certain segments of the refugee population, particularly the Vietnamese community, can in part be explained by the manner in which Trump pushed an “us versus them” narrative into the zeitgeist during the 2016 election.

“Some of that might have predated Trump,” Ramakrishnan said, adding, however, that “Trump essentially introduced that kind of rhetoric and policy into the political bloodstream in 2016.”

Data from that election cycle shows that the Vietnamese community, made up predominantly of refugees, favored Hilary Clinton over Trump. A closer look at that AAPI Data survey reveals that in spite of leaning Democratic, Vietnamese Americans were already among the least likely of any Asian American group to support accepting Syrian refugees, with more than a third indicating opposition to it.

More than a third of another predominantly refugee community, Cambodian Americans, reported support for a Muslim ban. Over the next four years, with heavy crackdowns on legal and illegal immigration as well as divisive rhetoric from the administration, the community would shift closer to Trump. And by the 2020 election cycle, polling data showed Vietnamese Americans had reversed their leftward lean.

Ramakrishnan noted that other segments of some Asian American groups, like Indian and Chinese Americans, were similarly vulnerable to the divisive rhetoric due to an incomplete understanding of their own communities.

Ramakrishnan said he suspects those who were moved by Trump’s comments do not have a firm grasp of just how many undocumented immigrants belong to their own community.

“When Trump attended the 'Howdy, Modi' rally in Houston he was railing against illegal immigrants,” he said. “The thing is, it's not reflective of the majority of Indian American opinion, but for those who hold those views, they don't realize how many undocumented Indian Americans there are, in the U.S. — over 400,000.”

Similarly, Chinese Americans showed the most ambivalence to offering a pathway to citizenship compared to all other Asian groups, at 22 percent. However, the group has the second-highest number of undocumented of any Asian American community.

“The good immigrant, bad immigrant narrative, it's a myth. You have so many undocumented within our communities, 1 out of every 7 Asian immigrants is undocumented,” Ramakrishnan said. “It's something that is deep rooted. It's not necessarily based on an understanding of how immigration actually works and how significant the undocumented population is among Asian Americans. But it makes Asian Americans more prey to this rhetoric.”

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