Soccer-Style Diversity: Representing the U.S. in More Ways than One

A soccer stadium in Maracaibo, Venezuela is probably the last place one would imagine drawing inspiration for the cause of U.S. immigration reform. But in the wake of today’s defeat of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform plan, which failed largely as a result of obstruction from those unsettled by our nation’s growing diversity, it is the first place we as a country should look.

Tonight the eyes of the Americas will be fixated on José Pachencho Romero Stadium in Maracaibo, when a diverse group of U.S. soccer players with last names as different as Gomez, Nguyen, Bornstein, and Olsen, will take the field as one to represent their nation against world soccer power Argentina in the first round of Copa America—the hemisphere’s mini-World Cup.

The U.S. team will be taking the field with a backdrop of resentment of and disappointment in the United States that has dangerously eroded our standing in the hemisphere. The Bush administration’s neglect and mismanagement of regional relations have left many in the region with the impression that the United States neither needs nor wants to be connected to the rest of the Americas.

Then, in Washington today, another defeat for the cause of comprehensive immigration reform will continue to leave millions of people in the United States—who live, work, pay taxes, and dream of becoming U.S. citizens—on the outside looking in. Yet simply by taking the field, our players could provide an important first step in redirecting the trajectory of U.S. relations with the hemisphere and inspire those who seek to align our immigration laws with reality—just by reminding everyone that our nation is one of inclusion and opportunity by simply being who they are.

In a sport, where the ultimate achievement is successfully representing your country, the players that represent the United States come from backgrounds that reflect our diversity as a nation. The 22 players who enter the stadium in Maracaibo, the pool from which they are drawn, and the program they represent embody our national ideal of inclusion and an acceptance of the growing interconnections in our world and our hemisphere.

Together with their compatriots who will venture to Canada next week to participate in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, the National Team representatives in Venezuela underscore the great reservoir of talent and inspiration that immigration restrictionists in the United States wish to cast out of our society without regard to the implications of such moves at home or abroad. The two teams that will be on display in the Americas in the coming weeks are concrete reminders that immigrants and their children are valuable and valued members of our society.

One needs to look no further than Carlos Bocanegra, an American of Mexican descent who captained the United States in its 2-1 victory over arch-rival Mexico, to understand the interconnections highlighted by these teams. In Venezuela, the United States will be led by Benny Feilhaber—a naturalized U.S. citizen of Austrian-Jewish decent, born in Brazil. Feilhaber began his soccer education in the parks and streets of Rio de Janeiro and continued it in Irvine, California before attending UCLA and moving on to play professionally in Germany.

And two young newcomers—Lee Nguyen, of Vietnamese descent, and Herculez Gomez, born in Las Vegas to parents of Mexican heritage—will be hoping to take the field to lead the United States to victory.

The U.S. U-20 team is an even more striking example of the children of immigrants contributing to U.S. vitality. There is, of course, Freddy Adu, the Ghanaian-born 18-year-old sensation who has played professionally since he was 14 and is considered the future of U.S. soccer. There are also even newer names like 16-year-old Josmer Altidore, born to Haitian parents, who are also rising stars.

The National Team and the U.S. U-20 are microcosms of how immigrants have successfully and proudly represented and defined the image of our country. The United States’ tattered image is in good hands with the unintentional “soccer diplomacy” we are about to witness from Canada to Venezuela. Hopefully both policymakers in Washington and the disenchanted throughout the Americas understand that these teams embody the best the United States has to offer and embrace the message they implicitly carry whenever they step out onto the field as a team.

It will require differing degrees of good fortune for the national and U-20 teams to prevail in their respective tournaments. That they represent a message of the United States’ sense of inclusion and interconnection at a time when it is so desperately needed in the Americas is our good fortune.

Dan Restrepo is the Director of the Americas Project, Max Bergmann is a Research Associate, and Andrew Tillman is a National Security Intern at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.