In mainstream liberal media, there’s no shortage of stories about heroic immigrants who rescue people from burning buildings or save their classmates during a school shooting. We applaud these people for their acts of bravery and compassion, and more often than not, we share their stories as examples of why immigrants are great for our community.
Coming from an immigrant family myself, I understand the need for positive representation of immigrants. It’s a way for us to counter the harmful narratives reinforcing the racism and xenophobia that continue to oppress so many immigrant communities today. It’s also a way to shed light on the strength and perseverance of immigrants who deserve to have their stories heard.
But this heroic portrayal of immigrants raises some key questions about the status of immigrants in our society.
What qualifies someone as “worthy” of being accepted into society? Why do immigrants have to be superhuman to feel welcome? And where does this mentality leave the many immigrants who — like most of us — don’t meet these narrow criteria?
The truth is that when we impose our ideas of heroism and sacrifice on to immigrant communities, we deny them the full spectrum of humanity. To be human is to be flawed and to make mistakes, and immigrants are no exception.
The immigrants you often hear about in anecdotes — the hardworking folks who overcome impossible obstacles to provide for their families — deserve more than to be placed on a pedestal of immigrant exceptionalism. They are more than one-dimensional tropes of sacrifice, martyrdom, and thankless patriotism. Immigrants are first and foremost people, and they deserve to be afforded the full range of humanity as everyone else. That includes weakness, fear, and failure, among so many other things.
By idealizing extraordinary immigrants, we end up reinforcing the “good immigrant” versus “bad immigrant” trope that for too long has divided immigrant communities. Similar to the ways that the “model minority myth” has been used to pit Asian Americans against other communities of color in the US, the “good immigrant” narrative serves to elevate part of the immigrant community at the expense of the rest.
This is crystal clear through former President Obama’s statement on who his administration was targeting for deportation: “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” The reality, of course, is that none of these categories are exclusive. Many people with criminal convictions have families, after all. This divisive rhetoric has done little to help immigrant communities and merely furthers the notion that only some immigrants are worthy of integration into society, while others are unwelcome.
This narrative puts pressure on immigrants to position themselves as “good” — hardworking and eager to contribute to their new country — while distancing themselves from anything that might be associated with being a “bad immigrant.”
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I witnessed this mentality everywhere throughout my youth. I even participated in it myself. In my own naivety and my desire to belong, I saw myself as one of the “good” immigrants: I kept my head down, I played by the rules, and I did well in school. It wasn’t until my late teens that I became aware of my ignorance and realized that I was actually part of the problem. By positioning myself as “acceptable” to those in power, I was playing right into the hands of the underhanded tactics designed to generate divisions within immigrant communities.
To divide people into categories of either “good” or “bad” ignores the myriad social, political, and economic factors that influence every aspect of our lives. As an immigrant, I come from a relatively privileged background. My mother is highly educated and previously studied in the US, so when we moved here, she knew what resources were available to our family and how to get them.
I took a lot of things for granted: our close proximity to school and the library, my mom’s insistence on finding me a math tutor to keep me on track, and the immigrant community that never made me feel foreign as a child, because almost everyone else had come from similar backgrounds. It is these privileges — and not some innate willpower or virtue — that helped me become a fluent English speaker with a master’s degree, thereby earning respectability according to middle-class American values and securing my place as one of the “good” immigrants.
The reality, of course, is that immigrants far more hardworking than I am do not have access to the same privileges as I did growing up and are therefore excluded from this “good immigrant” label.
The artificial dichotomy between “good” and “bad” immigrants affects not only our cultural perceptions of immigrants but has a resounding impact on the political landscape as well. In the US, for example, attempts at creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants are often accompanied by increases in immigration enforcement and border security. Under the Obama administration, some undocumented immigrants were able to apply for temporary work authorization and relief from deportation through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). At the same time, though, the administration was responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants at record numbers. This is what happens when we frame certain immigrants as “good” and others as “bad”: we end up giving access to a select few while enacting more violence and exclusion on others.
Just as bad, another part of the problem is our tendency to talk about immigrants as economic martyrs. Too often, we hear people heaping praise onto the ways immigrants support the economy by taking on low-paying, labor-intensive work that many citizens are unwilling to consider. The logic behind this, of course, is that we should be welcoming of immigrants because they are the backbone of our economy. But this line of thinking is harmful. It assumes that immigrants exist to be exploited, that their value to society lies in their willingness to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for abusive working conditions and meager pay. And it allows employers to continue this pattern of exploitation with the comfort of knowing that the government—and the rest of society—will look the other way.
It should go without saying that people have value beyond what they contribute to society, and immigrants should not have to endure labor exploitation or prove superhuman resilience to be deemed “worthy” of inclusion in our communities. We don’t impose the same unrealistic standards on citizens, after all. Further, what does this expectation mean for immigrants who, due to disability or other reasons, are unable to perform the labor society deems necessary to justify their access? When we let economics take center stage in conversations about immigration, where does that leave human rights?
Throughout my childhood, I have witnessed my mother struggle—even with her relative privileges—to provide for my family as an immigrant. I know many others who have endured similar and more grueling hardships. Immigration is no easy feat, and it is dehumanizing to see immigrants reduced to their labor even by those who advocate for pro-immigrant policies. Migration is difficult enough without the additional requirement of “earning” your place as well. Rather than the oversimplified heroes, villains, or martyrs we hear about in the media, it is critical that we acknowledge the humanity of immigrants above anything else and ensure they have the space to represent themselves so that the rest of society can follow their lead.
[Featured Image: Photo from an immigrant rights march in Los Angeles, California. Two protesters are visible in the front of the image linking arms. The person on the left has brown skin, long black braids, and is wearing a peach dress. The person on the right also has long dark hair and brown skin and has what appears to be a Mexican flag draped around their neck. Many other protesters of diverse racial backgrounds and gender presentations, some holding signs, are visible in the background. Source: Molly Adams on Flickr]