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By former Army Secretary Louis E. Caldera, Lt. Gen. (retired) Jan-Marc Jouas, Maj. Gen. (retired) Steven J. Lepper
In 2016, Donald Trump challenged our national consensus that we are proud to be a nation of immigrants. With references to Mexican immigrants as “criminals and rapists,” promises to deport “bad hombres,” and relentless calls for a “big, beautiful wall” to be paid for by Mexico, he staked his campaign on the ugly rhetoric of exclusion.
Since the election, President Trump, beginning with the so-called “Muslim ban,” has treated immigrants as a target for demonization. As we look to November, Americans should examine the facts and use their voices to reassert the critical role of immigrants in American society.
As former military and defense officials, we are particularly concerned about the immigrants who have answered our nation’s call to serve. Approximately 40,000 immigrants serve in the ranks today. Our nation simply could not field the force our military requires if we limited recruiting to citizens. Immigrants are among our most patriotic military members; they are eager to serve and fierce in their devotion to duty precisely because they want to become part of the fabric of America.
Indeed, immigrants have fought in every American war from the Revolutionary War to our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 300,000 immigrants served in the armed forces during World War II. And thousands have sacrificed their lives in service to our nation, including over 300 since 9/11. And 20 percent of all Medal of Honor recipients have been immigrants whose courage should be an inspiration to us all.
Over a half million veterans were not born in this country, and almost 2 million veterans, including the authors, are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Like other immigrants, past and present, our parents taught us patriotism and love for the country that opened its doors to our families, and we were inspired by their belief to serve and defend America.
Sadly, President Trump has broken faith with these troops. In addition to rhetoric that deprecates them and the countries they come from, his administration ended the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program under which certain undocumented and non-resident immigrants could enlist to serve our country and earn their citizenship.
Immigrant combat veterans whose service-related PTSD got them into trouble were deported, not treated. And Trump has slowed the rate at which immigrants serving in uniform are becoming U.S. citizens by half of what it was under President Obama. His cynical actions harm immigrants on whom our national security depends, risk destroying their morale, and impair the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the units to which they belong.
The events of the past several months have created a new lens for Americans to examine what our democracy requires. The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted national introspection and demands for genuine efforts to rectify systemic injustices, especially for Black Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how much we depend on the contributions of immigrants, many of whom we count on as essential workers.
Most Americans don’t realize that nearly a third of America’s physicians and surgeons are immigrants, as are 15 percent of all registered nurses and 22 percent of all health care support workers (home health aides, nursing assistants, etc.). Most of us also don’t realize that 29,000 of these health care workers are undocumented immigrants able to serve only because they are protected from deportation by the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that President Trump vowed to cancel.
About one third of food production and one quarter of construction jobs are held by immigrants, almost half of whom are undocumented; many have lived, worked, raised families, and paid taxes in this country for decades. The story is similar in other sectors of our economy: One out of five manufacturing and hospitality and leisure jobs are held by immigrants. Immigrant-owned small businesses employ over 8 million Americans, and 365,000 immigrants work as teachers in our schools.
In other words, immigrants and their children, documented and undocumented, are workers and consumers who help drive our nation’s economic growth. They are also our neighbors, fellow parishioners, and our children’s teammates and friends.
We know what Trump thinks about immigration and immigrants. Not even pictures of children in cages or the carnage wrought by a white nationalist shooter in El Paso have shaken his misconceptions. The reality is immigrants have helped build America and have kept us safe.
Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, herself the daughter of immigrants, offer a fundamentally different approach that is truer to our history as a nation made stronger by the contributions of immigrants. Biden and Harris recognize that restoring compassion in the immigration process is key to America’s well-being, economic prosperity, and national security.
Louis Caldera was born in El Paso, is an Army veteran and served as secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas served on active duty for over 35 years. Both his parents immigrated to the United States. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Lepper retired as the deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force after 35 years of active service. His mother immigrated to the United States from war-torn Europe after World War II.
Cover photo: In 2010, Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale presented Sgt. 1st Class Francisco J. Ramirez-Lopez, a Tijuana native who was then serving in Afghanistan, with a certificate of naturalization following a ceremony on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Ian M. Terry, U.S. Army)