Republican contender Vivek Ramaswamy’s views on immigration are at odds with his own life story. The gap between the two is a reminder that addressing the migration crisis requires complex policy interventions, not performative polemicism.
The biotech executive-turned-anti-“woke” crusader has positioned himself as a hardliner on illegal immigration. Ramaswamy wants to clamp down on the so-called “open borders” policy of the Biden administration and eliminate birthright citizenship for kids born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants (in violation of the 14th Amendment).
Ramaswamy has also tied citizenship to acts of fidelity to America and its ideals — even for the native-born — implying that it must be earned. On the campaign trail, he’s said that first-time young voters should be required to take the same civics test he claims his parents took in order to become U.S. citizens.
But as of late, NBC News reports, he’s tweaked that language, dropping references to his father. The reason? His dad hasn’t taken the civics test. He isn’t even an American citizen.
Ramaswamy is coy about his father’s reasons for not availing the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. He attributes it to “familial reasons.”
So, on the one hand, Ramaswamy says America is the “greatest country known to mankind.” And he uses his family story to paint himself as an ideal immigrant — the hardworking, loyal, and legal type. Then, on the other hand, his own father has chosen not to exercise the opportunity for full integration in this great country and instead remain a citizen of the Republic of India.
Ramaswamy’s father may have good reason to not become an American citizen. And in the end, it is his personal right. But his choice to not become an American despite living here for over four decades cuts against his son’s personal narrative and binary views on both immigration and what it means to be an American.
Vivek Ramaswamy says America is the world’s greatest country. But his father hasn’t chosen to become part of that American family. A cynic might say that America clearly isn’t good enough for Ramaswamy’s father; or that he’s gaming the system by staying here indefinitely without choosing to relinquish loyalty to another land; or that he’s privileged his material interests, like possession of inherited property in India, over becoming a full American.
We, of course, owe Ramaswamy and his family the benefit of the doubt. The predicaments of illegal immigrants — also known as undocumented or irregular migrants — also deserve sensitive consideration.
What Ramaswamy’s family story makes clear is that real life is complicated — especially for those who’ve traveled thousands of miles to settle in another country, often escaping great adversity or peril. Individuals who leave one land for another leave behind loved ones, personal property, and their roots. To be an immigrant — legal or illegal — is an act of risk-taking. And it is important to understand the context in which those individuals take that risk, irrespective of status.
Ramaswamy’s true family story contains other ironies: he’s only a U.S. citizen because of birthright citizenship, which is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. His mother became a U.S. citizen after he was born.
So while Ramaswamy opposes birthright citizenship for the offspring of those without legal status, by tying the citizenship of a child born here to the status of his or her parents, he opens up the question of why should the children of any non-citizens get birthright citizenship. After all, if his mother never opted for U.S. citizenship or failed the civics test, what differentiates him from an illegal immigrant other than legal status? Both are non-citizens.
Ramaswamy also rails against family reunification — also called “chain migration.” He told POLITICO, “The people who come as family members are not the meritocratic immigrants who make skills-based contributions to this country.” As a baby born to non-citizens, what skills did he bring to this country? Like most, he was a value-added to the economy only after reaching adulthood.
Now, Ramaswamy isn’t the first politician whose stated views on immigration are at odds with their own family history. In the United Kingdom, Suella Braverman has railed against multiculturalism and has made plans to deport migrants to Rwanda. More than half a century ago, her father migrated to England from nearby Kenya, as she says, “with absolutely nothing.” And that wasn’t his first experience with migration. Braverman’s paternal grandfather is from Goa, India.
Similarly, many in the U.S. who oppose immigration amnesty are descendants of illegal Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants who were made eligible for permanent resident status through the Registry Act of 1929.
The United States is indeed facing a migrant crisis. It’s impossible to allow everyone in. Migrants with a criminal background, in particular, are undesirable. Uncontrolled immigration, some studies contend, depresses wages for low-skilled workers already here, particularly in the black American community. (On that point, many others disagree).
Deportations and deterrence must be part of a U.S. policy response to the migrant crisis. But we need solutions that are constitutional, fair, humane, and realistic — especially ones that address the drivers of migration, including U.S. sanctions on Venezuela.
In the end, illegal immigration is a reality that has to be managed using a set of policies. Contrary to what the silver-tongued Ramaswamy suggests, there is no silver bullet.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.