Commentary Immigration

The Problem With ‘Good’ Immigrants

William C. Anderson

The desire to portray all immigrants as “good” undermines any movement that puts people first, not their citizenship status or criminal record.

The United States of America is not a “nation of immigrants” as you might have been led to believe. Supporters of immigrant rights often use this framing for inclusivity’s sake. But the fact of the matter is there were already Native people on this continent before early settlers arrived. This idea also ignores the enslaved people who were brought here against their will. Ultimately, this ahistorical point of view attempts to make migrants, immigrants, and refugees into something more acceptable. We should be prepared to ask ourselves: acceptable for whom?

Far too often, people attempt to make immigrants into something more palatable to this white supremacist society. There’s a subtle xenophobia in the assumption that outsiders must be sanitized to become good enough to be in the United States.

The desire to portray all immigrants as “good” undermines any movement that puts people first, not their citizenship status or criminal record.

Some people say immigrants deserve to be treated with dignity because they are “not criminals.” This sort of reduction is bad too, even if it’s done with good intentions. The framing suggests that people who are labeled “criminals” are inherently undeserving, and it does so without any acknowledgment of the impossible nature of escaping such a designation. This applies doubly for those, especially Black people, who are associated with criminality based on race. Furthermore, this overlooks the fact that the same forces of oppression regularly attack both those who are deemed criminal and those who are deemed foreign. We should not put energy into affirming designations of criminality as defined by the state. But we can deconstruct what that label means for the purposes of liberation from the state violence that detains and kills people for trying to survive.

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Immigrants deemed good enough are often rewarded with some sort of legal status or otherwise granted protections for being exceptional. In France, an undocumented Malian immigrant was given citizenship recently after he climbed four stories up a building to save a dangling child. And in Thailand, citizenship quickly came into consideration for the coach and three stateless members of the Wild Boars football team after they were rescued from the flooded Tham Luang cave complex in a closely watched international story. Yet xenophobic attitudes persist among the nations that give citizenship out to people for being exemplary. The U.S. military is currently discharging immigrant recruits who were promised citizenship, and it’s certainly deported them and their family members before.

Trauma, too, can make people seem more acceptable when it comes to allowing free movement. This is part of the reasoning behind asylum claims and U-visas. However well-intentioned, the logic of these sorts of statuses reinforces the narrative that there are deserving immigrants and ignores the ripple effect trauma has on communities and families. These statuses award safety to individuals, but leave behind the larger populations they represent.

Advocates and activists should not be in the business of affirming the state’s violent rhetoric, and the people entangled in this system don’t need to seek redemption for fighting for their own lives. Migrants, immigrants, and refugees don’t need allies coming to their defense to justify their existence in such terms. Instead, advocates and activists should interrogate the systems, states, and other oppressive structures that displace people in the first place.

By letting corporations run rampant and supporting repressive governments abroad, the United States has made many places around the world unlivable. This is certainly true for South and Central America, where the United States has implemented coups and supported corporate interests exploiting nations throughout the Americas.

It is not on the people who are suffering to become worthy enough for citizenship or any other permissions; the onus should fall on the dominant institutions, like the U.S. State Department and the military, that force people’s movement instead.

Anything that seeks to make displaced people more acceptable for the sake of respectability in immigration politics is reaffirming the violence of borders, U.S. intervention, foreign policy bolstering the decades-old drug war, and other harms that throw people to and fro, risking their lives and that of their families.

Instead, it would be productive for advocates and allies to seek the abolition of extremist forces like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and of borders that serve as nets for confinement as well as death traps. If corporations can move across borders freely in the name of the global market and procuring capital, people should be able to do the same for their own survival. After all, corporations are not people. And if borders were actually about protecting us, they wouldn’t be militarized in racist ways that reflect the bias of the U.S. immigration system, giving preference to white immigrants and refugees.

Abolition means having the courage to not feel dependent on the structures that harm us, our communities, and the people around us. Participating, even abstractly, in the militarized, violent forces that confine, kill, and let people die is not in our best interests. The myth that borders protect us from dangerous people is as farcical as the myth that the police do the same. Human movement has always happened, and borders aren’t necessarily so new themselves. But just because we’ve grown used to something, that doesn’t mean it’s valid. If we admit this truth, abolition is a reasonable solution.

People do not need to be heroes, trauma victims, “highly skilled,” or comparable to any noteworthy figures to be allowed to sustain themselves. Borders block people who are trying to continue their or their family’s existence and confine them in detention centers or with unreasonably long processes that treat them as deficient for being outside of state lines. Requirements on people’s movement, like the U.S. skills-based immigration system or a “zero-tolerance” policy, already harm and kill people. This contradicts the very assumption that we may be letting in supposedly dangerous people. The danger has already arrived, and it’s the policies of intervention, exploitation, and exclusion that force people to migrate.

We cannot put stipulations on which people are worthy enough to live.

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