Of the many questions at stake in this fall’s election, one of the less obvious is this: Will the United States remain a country where someone like Barack Obama or Kamala Harris—a person of color with immigrant parents—is likely to be born? The answer depends, in part, on whether America’s universities retain their global appeal. If Donald Trump wins reelection, they may not.
Harris and Obama exist because, after World War II, American universities grew more attractive than their British counterparts to many young strivers from the decolonizing world. As the New York Times reporter Ellen Barry explained in a recent story, the current Democratic vice-presidential nominee’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, yearned to be a scientist. But in the British-influenced educational system prevalent in newly independent India, that wasn’t easy for a woman. At New Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, established by the wife of a former British viceroy, Gopalan was forced to study “home science.” When she looked for a graduate institution that would teach her biochemistry, according to her brother, she couldn’t find one in the United Kingdom. So, in 1959, she enrolled at UC Berkeley.
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For his part, Harris’s father, Donald, won a scholarship designed to allow promising young Jamaicans to study in Britain. But Harris disliked Britain’s “static rigidity” and had read a story about Berkeley students going south to fight for civil rights. He showed up at Berkeley in 1961 and met Gopalan the following year.
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Barack Obama’s father has a story like Donald Harris’s. In 1959, with Kenya on the verge of independence, the nationalist leader Tom Mboya hatched a scheme to send talented young Kenyans to Western universities so they could return and help run the fledgling country. The British colonial authorities dismissed the idea because a British-affiliated university was next door in Uganda. So Mboya went to the U.S., where he raised funds from Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Jackie Robinson, and, later, from presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who thought the plan might make Kenya’s emerging elite pro-American. One of the students who won Mboya’s scholarship was Barack Obama Sr., who met Ann Dunham, the future president’s mother, in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii in 1960.
Gopalan, Harris, and Obama Sr. were ahead of their time. In the early 1960s, the U.S. permitted few immigrants from Africa and Asia. But that changed with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened America’s doors to newcomers who weren’t from northern Europe. From 1965 to 1970, the number of immigrants from Asia quadrupled. Immigration from the Caribbean was almost four times higher in the 1960s than it had been in the 1950s. And the number of international students in the U.S.—many of whom stayed in the country after receiving their degrees—began a steady climb from fewer than 100,000 in the late 1950s to 400,000 by the late 1980s to more than 1 million by the time Trump took office. In 2016, nine of the 10 countries that sent the most students to the U.S. were in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.
Supporters of these trends often defend them in economic terms. Immigrants, they note, are responsible for many of the patents created by America’s top research universities. Foreign students’ tuition subsidizes public universities during an era in which state-government support has dwindled. And many foreign students go on to create companies that employ Americans.
But there’s an asymmetry between establishment pro-immigration voices, who generally stress materialist arguments, and the conservative nationalists, ascendant under Trump, who define immigration primarily as a political, cultural, and racial threat. In her book, Adios America, which helped shape Trump’s immigration message in 2016, Ann Coulter depicts the 1965 immigration law as part of a progressive strategy to flood the United States with nonwhite immigrants so that conservatives can’t win elections. “Democrats had not been able to get a majority of white people to vote for them,” she writes. “Their only hope was to bring in new voters.”
This line of argument reduces immigration to an electoral ploy, and Democrats often respond by stressing the utilitarian benefits of welcoming people from all over. But the very existence of Kamala Harris and Barack Obama reveals a political effect that can’t be captured by statistical generalizations. Immigration into the United States allows multicultural interactions that produce Americans who can see the country from both within and without.
Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris met at what became Berkeley’s Afro American Association, which Barry calls “a crucible of radical politics” made possible because “the descendants of sharecroppers or enslaved people” found themselves in proximity to “students from countries that had fought off colonial powers.” The historian Nell Painter, who was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the early 1960s, told Barry that, because immigrants such as Gopalan and Harris had “a broader view of the world, and they were people of color,” they represented “a kind of intellectual freedom.” The political environment at the University of Hawaii was less intense. Still, it was increasingly cosmopolitan—in the year Obama Sr. arrived, so did students from Jordan and Iran—and politically progressive. And it was in this environment that a brilliant young Kenyan who dissected colonialism over coffee and beer met an idealistic white Kansan who soon gave birth to America’s first Black president.
Like most people, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris owe much of their political outlook to their parents. And each has incorporated their parents’ journeys into their own political narrative. Obama has said that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” Harris calls herself “the child of parents who were marching and shouting” in the civil-rights movement and thus instilled in her a passion for justice.
In the Trump era, the Republican Party has launched an effort to make replicating Harris’s and Obama’s family stories harder. Over the summer, the Trump administration demanded that foreign students leave the U.S. if their institutions taught solely online—before backing down in the face of lawsuits. It has also initiated a Red Scare–style hunt for Chinese spies on American campuses that, according to the president of MIT, has left “faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students” feeling “unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge—because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the administration’s moves were souring international students on the United States. The number enrolled in the U.S., which rose by 9 percent from 2014 to 2015, declined in both of the Trump administration’s first two years. A 2018 poll by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that 54 percent of prospective students from India, and 50 percent from China, said the political climate in the U.S. would deter them from applying to an American business school.
Seeing an opportunity, both Canada and Britain are moving to loosen visa requirements to make their universities more attractive to foreign students. And in a grand historical irony, the Beijing-based New Oriental Education & Technology Group reported that in 2020, for the first time, Britain—the country whose inhospitality spurred Gopalan, Harris, and Obama Sr. to the other side of the Atlantic—was now a more popular destination among Chinese students than the U.S.
If Trump wins reelection, these trends will likely accelerate. Last week, Axios reported that his administration wanted to change a law that allows foreign students to stay for the length of their studies and would instead require them to apply for visa extensions after two or four years. In a second term, Trump might push legislation such as the Secure Campus Act now being promoted by Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn, which would bar Chinese students from graduate study in scientific and engineering fields in the U.S.
The effect of these moves on America’s economic dynamism and geopolitical power would likely be profound. But, more intimately, they would also make America’s campuses less able to foster the kind of cosmopolitan, multicultural climates that produced the first Black president and perhaps the first Black (and female) vice president. Nativists like Ann Coulter understand that. Progressives should too. They should embrace immigration from countries such as those that produced Shyamala Gopalan, Donald Harris, and Barack Obama Sr., not just because it benefits the economy, but because of the range of human possibilities that it creates.
PETER BEINART is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.
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