I recently attended a wedding in Atlanta between a brilliant Afghan writer and an equally brilliant young Chinese American doctoral student.
Their stories and their wedding are an illustration of the contribution immigrants make to American society. They illustrate the illogic of current White House efforts to slash legal immigration.
I met Qais Akbar Omar over a decade ago in Kabul where he ran the family’s carpet business. He was writing a memoir, in English, about his tumultuous childhood during the Afghan civil war and Taliban rule. At that time, I could never have imagined I would attend his wedding where Americans danced to Afghan and Western music and gorged on a Chinese buffet.
Qais’ memoir was so gripping that Farrar, Straus & Giroux eventually published it as “A Fort of Nine Towers.” The young Afghan writer was invited to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University. In his program, Qais met Mai Wang, a naturalized citizen who came here from Beijing as a child and is pursuing a doctorate at Stanford University.
Mai’s father immigrated to the United States and became a software engineer. Her mother, an expert in ancient Chinese calligraphy, took waitressing jobs until she could open up a small printing business and work as a Chinese-English translator.
Theirs is the quintessential immigrant story: strivers who take a chance for a better life in a new country, contribute to the workforce and pay taxes that outstrip any benefits they received. They often arrive with skill levels that complement U.S. workers and add to economic growth. The current debate over immigration has defaced actual legal immigrants.
Nearly half of those arriving between 2012 and 2016 had a college degree, according to the Migration Policy Institute. “The United States has creamed the best and the brightest of the world’s emigrants for decades,” says the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward Alden, an immigration expert. “Overall, they are an enormous net positive for the economy.”
The Trump administration is trying to cut back legal immigration in myriad ways, capping refugee admissions at a record low, narrowing who is eligible for asylum, and shrinking the number of visas for high-skilled workers. Mountains of bureaucratic hurdles are being imposed to shrink the numbers who qualify for permanent residency or citizenship.
Even worse, the image of immigrants is being blackened by conflating illegal immigrants with legal immigrants, and implying most newcomers are criminals. This is untrue. Poll after poll has shown foreign-born individuals exhibit low levels of involvement in crime, whether documented or undocumented. Legal immigrants pay more in taxes over their lifetimes than benefits they may receive. Contrary to popular myth, the biggest group of new, legal foreign-born U.S. residents since 2010 are Asians, not Latin Americans.
You’d never get this picture, of course, from the imagery on partisan websites or propagated by the Trump administration. But the true face of immigration was on display at this wonderful wedding last weekend. This multicultural wedding was moving in ways that went beyond statistics.
The parents of Qais and Mai —with Qais’ father beamed in from Kabul on FaceTime— were welcoming to the new couple, despite ethnic differences. They demonstrated an inclusiveness once the hallmark of the United States. Qais’ younger brother, whose life was threatened because he worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, was there with his family, having received a visa in a special program for such translators — a program that is now frozen.
And Qais, who just finished a novel, is safe in America, although his life would be threatened back in Kabul because of his writings. He has applied for asylum and hopes to teach creative writing. But his request is still pending, although he is exactly the kind of immigrant America should be welcoming. In Atlanta, I saw the best of America, brought to us from abroad.
—Trudy Rubin is a columnist and a member of the editorial board for the Philadelphia Inquirer.