World Cup becomes political football in US immigration game

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Comment by Alex Owen

To many who have followed our posts on US immigration over the last couple of years, the US political system may resemble a game – a game played by two 'teams' – the Republicans and the Democrats.

A game a bit like football, or, as the Americans call it, soccer. Both are games with rules which the uninitiated cannot understand. They are games which stir mighty passions and games which can move their supporters to violence.

Given their similarities, perhaps it is not surprising that the two have become entwined. The football World Cup has become a political football in the world of US politics.

Democrats v Republicans

More specifically, it has become caught up in the US immigration debate. To fill you in with a little background, the facts are, briefly, these, the Democrats, broadly speaking, support US immigration reform. The Republicans, broadly speaking oppose it.

On Monday 16th June, the US soccer team played its opening game in the World Cup against Ghana. The US won the game 2-1.

Of course, all politicians love to associate themselves with popular events. And so Nancy Pelosi, a senior Democrat, came to tweet an image of the US soccer team to support the case for immigration reform.


On Tuesday 17th June, Ms Pelosi, the Democrat leader of the in the House of Representatives (the lower house of Congress), tweeted a picture of some of the current US team.

Seven of the 11 players on view had been whited out and below she had written 'Immigrants help drive America's success, even in the World Cup! Look at what #USMNT (The US Men's National Team) would be without them'.

The seven whited out men in the team were those who had at least one immigrant parent. The picture had been prepared by the GlobalPost website as part of an article headlined 'Here's what the World Cup teams would look like if immigrants weren't allowed to play'.

Impact of immigration on football

The GlobalPost piece examined the impact of immigration on football. It published photos of all the teams in the finals. Those with at least one immigrant parent were whited out. Ms Pelosi attached the picture of the US team to her tweet.

The tweet caused a furious reaction in the US from right-wing anti-immigration commentators. To be fair, there was some justification for their outrage; it turns out that all the players in the photo have been US citizens since birth.

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin's site said that M Pelosi was 'selling lies like Girl Scout cookies' and added 'she can't even avoid lying about a soccer team'.

'They're all native-born Americans'

The IJReview, an online news site, said 'Nancy Pelosi and various other Democrats tweeted an image on Tuesday celebrating the number of "immigrants " on the U.S. World Cup soccer team. There's only one problem: None of it is true; they're all native-born Americans'.

Really? Is that true? Well, yes and no. It is true that all of them have been US citizens since birth but that is only because of US immigration law which says that anyone born in the US is eligible for US citizenship. So are most people who are born anywhere in the world if they have one US parent.

Despite the fact that all of them are US citizens, many of them have dual nationality, some have never lived in the US. Some of them have even played football, sorry soccer, for other countries. So are they all native born Americans? I don't think so.

Team stats

Player Position Biography
Tim HowardGoalkeeper Born to a US father and a Hungarian mother in the US. He has played in England since 2003
Johnny Brookes Defender Born to US military father and German mother in Berlin. Parents separated. Has lived in Germany most of his life with his mother. Has dual nationality and a German accent
Geoff Cameron Defender Born in the US to US born parents. He plays in the UK
Timmy Chandler Defender Born to US military father and German mother in Germany. His parents separated when he was young. He has lived in Germany with his mother since and plays soccer in Germany. He has a German accent
Omar GonzalesDefender Born in Dallas, Texas to Mexican parents. Gonzales rose through the college soccer system and now plays for LA Galaxy
Fabian Johnson Defender Born to US military father and German mother in Munich, Germany. Has always lived and played football in Germany
Alejandro Bedoya Midfield Born to Colombian parents in New Jersey. Now plays football in France
Clint Dempsey Midfield Born into poverty in Texas
Mix Diskerud Midfield Born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Norwegian father and an American mother. Has lived in Norway all his life, plays football in Sweden. Played for the Norwegian junior team
Julian Green Midfield Born in Florida to a German mother and US father. Moved to Germany when he was two. He has played for Germany under 16s and under 17s but for the US under 18s team
Jermaine Jones Midfield Born to US military father and German mother in Germany. Lived in US but returned to Germany with mother after divorce. He represented Germany at under 18s and full international level. Plays his football in Germany
Jozy Altidor Forward Born in New Jersey, the son of Haitian parents, he has played in Spain, England and Turkey
Aron Johansson Forward Born in Alabama, the son of Icelandic parents, he grew up in Iceland and now plays football in the Netherlands. Was called up for the Icelandic squad in 2012 but didn't play due to injury. Decided to play for the US in July 2013
Chris Wondolowski Forward Born in the US to US born parents, one of them a Native American. His paternal grandfather was born in Poland
Jurgen Klinsmann Coach A German citizen who played in the US in 2003, Klinsmann is a legend of German football who won the World Cup in 1990 with Germany and managed Germany in 2006. He is still a German citizen

So, while it may have been true that the pictured players had been US citizens since birth, it was hardly fair, you might think, to abuse Ms Pelosi for re-tweeting an image which was not misleading. The people whited out are the products of immigration. Some of them, at least are definitely not 'native-born Americans'. They were born in Europe.

US football success down to immigration

In fact, the reason why the US has a team that has reached the World Cup Finals and the reason why people in the US are aware of it are both largely the result of immigration.

In the 1970s and 80s, while Europe and South America, much of Africa and parts of Asia were in love with 'beautiful game', the US was one of the few developed countries that was able to resist its charms.

In those days, in the US, 'football' meant American football. That's why they call proper football 'soccer'; because the word 'football' is already taken. The popular games among the white majority were American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey.

White Americans thought soccer is a girls' game

But immigrant Americans brought their passion for soccer with them. While among white, middle class Americans, soccer was a game for girls, among immigrant communities, its popularity continues to grow. And as the size of the minority communities has grown, so has the popularity of 'soccer'.

Now the unthinkable has happened, the US team looks set to progress to the next round of the World Cup while the World Champions Spain and, of course, England, take the first plane home.

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