What immigrants are good for

It’s an interesting question. A crude parallel can be made between this question and the question of bilingualism. Both enrich the host country (the former, the U.S. or any other literal receiving nation; the latter, the “host” of the speaker’s brain/cognitive function), both contribute various forms of diversity, benefitting the economy in the former case and one’s ability to think creatively and adapt to new situations (see here, here and here for examples of associated research), and both add resources in times of deficit and change.

But if you’re not connected to immigrants or a variety of languages through your work or your social environment, why should you care, really? The trope espoused by Donald Trump and others, that immigrants are here to steal work from and violate the native-born, has been soundly defeated by solid research over the years, and yet threads through an American consciousness increasingly clotted with fear and anger as powerlessness and disaffection rise. The brown people he indicts publicly in his displays of chest-beating become a fearsome enemy to be inspected for benefit, briefly, before the doors are shut and walls are built. Demographically overlapping at times though not synonymous with “immigrants,” speakers of languages other than English tend to be found in urban centers, far from the safe belts of White conservatives whose “authentic American” thinking is referred to as politicos and pundits haggle over issues like “political correctness” in critiquing decisions about gender-neutral bathrooms or trans-friendly policies.

In truth, the reasons why foreign-born participants in U.S. society are “valuable” can indict the interests particular to the person listing them. A video showing the fervent arguments of Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics where I study at the Graduate Center in New York, is a case in point. Kaku asserts that foreign-born students benefit the science community in the United States, which struggles with the shoddy fodder provided by our intellectually deficient educational system (with, Kaku states, its rising “stupid index”), buoying up our economy as it is driven by Silicon Valley and other job creators in business. Importantly, the distinction between “immigrant” and “foreign-born” should be made (as it is unfortunately not in the blog post that inspired me to write). Nonetheless, this expresses the neoliberal ideology that defines how we perceive value and normalcy in education, business, and other human pursuits in the 21st century. The value of foreigners, says this viewpoint, is directly related to how they can contribute to our economy, to our ability to compete on the world stage with other major economic powers. Donald Trump himself could not disagree with this, as low-status Mexican workers helped him build major components of his empire. Thus, we can justify their presence here on such apolitical terms that allay American anxiety over the precarious hold we seem to have over our position as leader of the world in so many respects.

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By Субочева Юлия (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is this what immigrants are good for? I can’t answer this question directly but must instead ask another: Would we suggest that our own children are valuable and “good” for the United States for the same reasons, e.g., their fitting into the puzzle of how to remain in our most assumed position of global economic power? What rings as a reductive stance for our innocent progeny seems somehow acceptable for adults who speak and look different from us coming to this country. Kaku may feel passionate about the need to challenge our ignorance of how we maintain global preeminence in science and technology, but his rather romanticized discussion still invokes a discourse that dehumanizes and constrains human potential, agency, and variety in an apolitical and logical course of events. Foreign-born people should not be commodified and sorted according to how much they keep us on top. Arguing from such a perspective reinforces the same neoliberal model in which atomization, dehumanization, and alienation have become commonplace and, worse, increasingly normal.

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