Last week the United States Men’s National Team began its World Cup campaign in Brazil under the theme “One nation, one team.” The slogan echoes the narrative of the American dream: the story of an immigrant nation coming together through soccer.
The composition of the team reflects the shifting profile of the North American athlete and the migratory patterns that the U.S. government has so fervently attempted to restrict. Sixty percent of the roster is composed of first- or second-generation Americans, five of whom were born outside the U.S. The team could field a starting lineup of 11 players with direct ties to Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Poland, Latvia and the Philippines; 14 of the squad’s 23 men trace their roots through five continents.
But the players on the U.S. team, who are recognized and celebrated as Americans, represent only one side of a complicated immigrant narrative. The opening match against Ghana, which the U.S. won, came only a day after the second anniversary of President Barack Obama’s memo calling for what is now the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It does not grant a path to legalization and citizenship but provides undocumented immigrants with an opportunity to work and remain in the United States without the fear of deportation. Despite this effort, however, 2 million people have been deported over the past five years. The year DACA was put into effect, the administration deported an unprecedented 409,849 people.
Let's consider the case of Oscar (not his real name), a student of mine at the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland, California. Oscar was born in the U.S. to undocumented parents from Mexico and grew up in California as an American youth. But his American story came to an abrupt end in 2011 as he entered high school at the age of 14. An athlete in the Futbolistas 4 Life program, Oscar was on a promising path. He was a good student and an extremely talented soccer player. He played for the Bay Oaks, a local club that sends players to Division I soccer programs year after year on athletic scholarships throughout the U.S. After the 2012 winter holiday, I learned that Oscar’s mother was deported to Mexico after an immigration enforcement raid at her job site in East Oakland. With no mother or other adult to raise them, Oscar and his younger brother followed her days later, with no plan to return. They were stripped of their friends, school, home, language and fútbol team.
Unlike many of the youths I work with in East Oakland, the U.S. team’s players are permitted to live in and play for the “land of the free.” Many of the immigrants who are caught in the U.S. immigration net were forced to leave their countries for economic, political and social reasons, some of which U.S. policies directly influence. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement, intended to spur economic growth and create more competitive jobs in Mexico, allowed the U.S. to grant large subsidies to American farmers and tariff reductions to American firms. Instead of creating more jobs, Mexicans found themselves undermined and out of work, forcing millions of people to head to the U.S. in search of jobs. This is the American contradiction.
There are more than 400,000 men and women in over 250 immigration detention centers across the U.S. Private companies such as the Corrections Corp. of America and the GEO Group, a multinational corporation that specializes in corrections and detention management, make billions of dollars every year from these detentions and deportations. These companies lobby Congress to ensure the spread of privatized incarceration and charge a daily rate of $159 per person — costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year. In June of 2013 the National Immigrant Justice Center released data revealing (PDF) the detention of 1,366 immigrant children in adult facilities from 2008 to 2012.
Ironically, recent discussions about immigration reform in Congress show that our government and FIFA — which stands to profit billions of dollars from the demolition of thousands of Brazilian homes for the construction of facilities for this World Cup — play by the same rules. They displace people and destroy the lives of those they claim to serve. Despite widespread support, Republican intransigence and a lack of presidential leadership appear to have doomed immigration reform for now.
The World Cup is a game, but immigration reform is not. Lawmakers must respond to the tragic consequences of our broken immigration system with the same level of seriousness that our players approach their World Cup matches. The diversity of this year’s U.S. team represents its country in a way that no other team does. “One nation, one team” is a reflection of this quintessential immigrant nation. But America’s immigration system continues to deteriorate. When the U.S. team runs onto the pitch against Portugal today, I’ll be thinking of my futbolista, Oscar.