I moved to the States with my parents when I was 7, and I have been living in NYC ever since. In 2012, I received DACA, which has done much more than allowing me to work legally and to obtain a driver’s license. It’s empowered me to speak about my experience in a candid and honest way that was not possible before due to the constant threat of deportation. Now, I’m a sophomore at Harvard studying both Molecular and Cellular Biology and Government, and I take every opportunity to increase public awareness about immigration and to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
That’s why this election is particularly hard for me. During his campaign, Donald Trump has regressed the national conversation on immigration back to an extent that I had not believed was possible for any one human being to do. The first time I met a Trump supporter face-to-face was quite an experience.
I boarded the bus returning home from Cambridge with my parents, luggage in tow. Soon after, three silhouettes entered my periphery. It was two young men and a woman, presumably a mother and her sons. They entered the bus laughing at something, and sat two seats behind us. I took a quick look, and I saw the four words most associated with hatred and violence during this election cycle: “Make America Great Again.” One of them had a Trump hat and matching t-shirt. Another was wearing a t-shirt with an image of Trump’s face in front of a backdrop of an American flag.
In my mind, Donald Trump is more than a politician. He is a spokesman for racist and nativist sentiment, a symbol for resentment. I had decided when he made his announcement for the presidential bid that every time I personally encountered one of his supporters, I would confront him/her. I made a commitment to myself that I would meet Trump’s unfiltered (almost primal) hatred with what MLK called “unarmed truth.” I felt that if I honestly engaged with a Trump supporter, I could at the very least put a human face on the issue.
But when I saw the Trump supporters in person, I felt that it would probably be unwise to get involved or provoke these people – after all, I had seen what happened to protesters at Trump rallies: violence, expletives, hatred. I was not willing to put my parents or the other people on the bus through such an ordeal. So I thought better of it.
Immediately, those of us sitting around them knew what kind of social context we were in. We had seen Trump’s brand of nativism and hatred on television and in rallies, but to see a Trump supporter in person was unsettling for many of us. In fact, I traded glances with a younger couple a few times until the woman looked at me and mouthed the phrase “Is this really happening?”
I thought of the best way to ease myself into a conversation. A few questions immediately popped into mind: “Where are y’all from?” or “I have a question for you” or even “do you think I should be deported?” I decided to go with something more open-ended.
“How are you doing?”
“Well, and yourself? Are you from NYC?”
They were surprisingly personable. We talked about NYC being objectively the greatest city in the world. But I hadn’t started this conversation to make small-talk, so I asked something more pointed.
“Nice T-shirt. I’ve never met a Trump supporter. Are you coming back from a rally?”
“Well that’s probably because they haven’t told you. We’re actually on our way to one.”
The mother was quick to point out that they were college students, “unlike” those seen on Fox News. I figured that she wanted to distance herself and her sons from the Trump stereotype that had painted my initial perception.
“Yeah, that’s interesting, what do you find most appealing about him? That he’s not a part of the ‘Establishment’? Or that he says what he means? Or both?”
“Yeah, those are big,” one of them responded. “But his policies are smart.”
“Can you say more? The wall?”
“Yeah, that’s a good example. We need to keep illegals out. We’re a sovereign country.”
“But 40% of undocumented people came to the US legally and overstayed their visa, right?” (Source)
“Let me ask you something. Do you lock your doors at night?”
“Sure I do.”
“Then why wouldn’t it make sense for us to lock ours? We have drug cartels sending drugs over the border and no way to control it.”
In retrospect, I should have debunked this commonly held myth – that our border is somehow “insecure” and anyone can waltz through. Border patrol is one of the most well-funded law-enforcement agencies – U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently boasts a $13.56 billion dollar annual budget, which is larger than the annual budget of the FBI and DEA combined.
“Have you ever met anyone that is undocumented?”
“No, I’ve never actually asked.”
“Right, well I’m undocumented. And I didn’t cross the border, since there’s no border between the US and Korea. I moved with my parents on an airplane and overstayed my visa, which is a civil offense, not a criminal one.”
“Okay I didn’t know that.”
“Do you think I should be deported?”
He immediately began to avoid the question – “well you know, I think they should get in the back of the line, prove they’re ‘American…”
“But there is no line! There’s no way for undocumented people to put themselves at the end of some queue.” I pushed on.
“Do you think that I should be deported from the U.S. because I’m undocumented?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
He continued by saying that our country was still a nation of laws, and that we should respect those laws. I nodded to those since I didn’t have the energy to unpack 150 years of misguided and nativist immigration policy – from those driven by blatant racism (The Chinese Exclusion Act, Operation “Wetback”) to more subtle policies that created significant unintended consequences. Policies such as the termination of the Bracero program, that ended seasonal migration and incentivized workers to remain in the U.S. instead of sojourning for labor, or the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which decreased the severity of offenses eligible for deportation and required visa overstayers to stay outside of the U.S. for a given period, fundamentally changed the way that immigrants were able to migrate and remain in the U.S. These laws have gradually contributed to the defunct immigration system we see today.
The bus started to move again. Instead of trying to explain the intricacies of our immigration system, both legally and historically, I just said one thing: “All I want to say to that is that immigration is really complicated. I sincerely hope you continue to test your convictions on this issue.”
I stopped our conversation there because I had made my point. When you look at someone in the eyes (really look at them), all of the rhetoric and politics fades. It gets real. At that moment, at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, this young man had drawn out a compassion that is not represented in the media. It was the first time I had seen a Trump supporter agree to something that is contrary to his or her beliefs.
People like to assume away Trump supporters as uneducated and an intractable portion of the electorate. But there is a sense in which this assumes that these views are held by passive ignorance, assumed to be true only by those “unable” to engage in critical discussion.
But it’s important to recognize that these views are held by Trump’s supporters in a social context, not in a vacuum. These are human beings, with vivid mental lives capable of empathy and morality. Thus, I disagree with the notion that these views are held due to ignorance. Instead, I argue that we need to engage with these views and struggle with them. Trump supporters have engaged and negotiated with these views, and have accepted them as truth. It is important that we disagree, both publicly and privately, to views we disagree with instead of pushing them to the sideline.