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Not all immigrants are “nice”: Critiquing the “good immigrant” trope

2019 has begun with pain, exhaustion, and uncertainty for many people in the United States, and hope has been hard-won and tenuous. I volunteer with New Sanctuary Coalition, whose executive director, Ravi Ragbir, was forced to attend an ICE check-in this morning, one of many techniques that the government has been using to intimidate immigrant rights activists and their allies. The conviction of No More Deaths activists in the Arizona desert of littering on a federally protected wildlife reserve is a reminder that the Antigone defense, alluded to by the judge, would not hold up in the case of these activists, who were seeking to help migrants survive their treacherous voyage across burning, lifeless sands. Much like Antigone, their appeal to a higher law was to fall on deaf ears; that anyone would take a similarly terrible risk to discover a better life for their family than that waiting in their home country is likewise an appeal to reason that makes little dent in the steely facade of White nationalists.

Photo: Meghan Dhaliwal / New York Times

Given that such spitting, spiteful condemnation of migrants’ stories is the norm from many xenophobic camps here, many in the immigrant rights movement find themselves gathering up humanizing details about their interactions with migrants at the U.S. border, which galvanizes sympathy among those geographically far away with progressive values. I believe this is meaningful, and yet I want to bring forward a concern that may be overlooked in polarized times: the slippery slope of using the “good immigrant” trope.

In an op-ed in Truth-Out entitled “Transcending Language Barriers to Connect With Asylum Seekers,” the author, an activist who has helped transport migrants from Central America as they seek asylum in the United States, relates his recent experiences at the border. The personal story is emotive and powerful, sharing how he and his colleagues supported migrant families—called “friends” in the immigrant rights activist community—on their long and arduous journeys into a strange new place. But a couple of the statements the author made gave me pause:

Our friends are among the most capable and determined people I’ve ever met…

I’ve played with their young children, held them as they’ve cried, exchanged hugs with them and heard their heartbreaking stories. I’ve bought them meals, given them clothing and I’ve come to love each of them…

Our friends are gentle, loving, compassionate, kind and unbelievably strong…

I have no doubt that the author has had transformative experiences helping people get to safety. I don’t doubt his conviction or his commitment to this great work as a witness and a neighbor. Yet I have to wonder whether it becomes necessary for some to justify their work by drawing upon the image of the “good immigrant” to ensure that others who might be unsure about the values or future activities of these newcomers won’t look askance. When I refer to the “good immigrant” trope—which appears in education as well as other contexts where immigrants and U.S.-born people interact—I mean the way in which immigrants are characterized as “blameless,” “hardworking,” “gentle” [one of the words the author used], and otherwise nonthreatening…in large part because doing so sets them up to receive care, to be recipients of humanitarian aid. Again, I don’t mean to call into question the great good of such missions as a whole, but using such language nonetheless characterizes migrants as quiescent, happy to receive our help without any particular contributions as to how it take place.

What about the immigrant who was kind of rude, who didn’t respond, who was crass or odd? I wrote a blog post in 2017 entitled “Immigrants can be funny,” with the intention of signaling the fact that in the construction of the “good immigrant” in public discourse, individuals and their unique quirks and sharp edges are left out. We need to remember that yes, migrants are united in need, but they are not passive, apolitical versions of human beings with hands outstretched. Maybe they are “fierce,” like the author said, but maybe they’re also irritable, exhausted of dealing with savioristic White people, and taking up a position of quiet in the face of no other option. Maybe they’re people you would never otherwise want to talk to, if you lived in the same community. And maybe seeing them in the full range of human options is in fact even more radical than some of the embedded “good immigrant” narratives we tell each other in our activist work.

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