2017 is shaping up to be a rough year for immigrants—which is saying a lot, considering that building a new life in a new country is, by definition, pretty damn hard. A lot of (digital) ink has already been spilt over the now infamous travel ban, the ICE raids, the wall, the sharp increase in immigrant detention, the proposal to deport undocumented children receiving federal assistance. The xenophobia and callous disregard for human life lurking, none too subtly, beneath these policies speaks for itself, and if you’re reading this you probably know all that anyway.
What I want to say is something that shouldn’t need to be said—but we live in the kind of world where incomprehensibly cruel and unnecessary things happen every day, so I guess I’ll say it all the same:
Immigrants should not need to prove themselves worthy of inclusion.
Assimilation and hyper-patriotism and a superhuman work ethic are not prerequisites for citizenship. Yet these executive actions rely on the assumption that immigrants are dangerous simply because they are not like us, that their differences are a burden they must overcome before they can be welcomed as friends and neighbors.
In Trump’s America, “American” is synonymous with white, Christian, English-speaking, and native-born. The White House pits immigrants against “real” Americans, painting them as either inherently criminal or too foreign to ever truly fit in. The comfort of the majority is, apparently, more important than the civil rights of any minority.
As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens. #JointAddress
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 1, 2017
But then again, none of this is new. Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms and Irish immigrants exiled by famine adopted Anglicized names to circumnavigate bigoted landlords and employers. Chinese Americans who traveled outside the U.S. once had to carry a white man’s testimony affirming their citizenship in order to get back in. “Assimilation schools” and allotment agents cast Indigenous Americans as foreigners in their own country, claiming their culture, their languages, and their tribal lands must be sacrificed as a down payment on the path to citizenship.
Japanese Americans have been increasingly vocal about this frightening regression because we know very well what happens when immigrants (and their American-born children) are labeled as the enemy. When ICE officials ensnare hundreds of immigrants on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, we see our Issei community leaders herded into county jails and INS detention stations. When the White House claims that we must sacrifice the civil liberties of 6 million people to chase the shadow of “dangerous criminals hiding among those millions,” we hear General John DeWitt arguing for our grandparents’ incarceration because “it is just impossible to determine their loyalty.” When our president requires immigrants and refugees to pass a subjective, vaguely defined test “aimed at identifying… malicious intent,” we remember the loyalty questionnaire that proved to be less about identifying potential saboteurs and more about punishing cultural difference and resistance to discrimination.
Japanese Americans speak up because we have learned the hard way that the game is rigged.
“Keep to your own kind,” they told us. “You are not welcome here.” So we built communities where we would be safe among our own, venturing out into that other world only to trim their lawns and clean their houses.
“Stop hiding away in your ethnic ghettos,” they said. “Be more American.” So our parents gave us names they couldn’t pronounce and broke their backs saving money for college degrees we would add to resumes white men refused to read.
Do more. Be less. Give. Take. No. Yes. Nothing is ever good enough, and the rules are forever in flux.
This double standard has only evolved over time, targeting new communities but still achieving the same effect: A Guatemalan woman with several children is looking for a handout, but a mother of five in whitebread Middle America simply supports a traditional family structure. Somali refugees sending remittances to family members trapped in a conflict zone are aiding terrorism, but a citizen who helps out his own struggling relatives is displaying good Christian values. Victims of domestic violence are deported for seeking help—or, knowing the cards are stacked against them, remain silent—while their abusers continue to enjoy all the freedoms and protections of U.S. citizenship.
It’s easy to sympathize with the “good” immigrant who “follows the rules” and “waits their turn.” It is harder to admit that the rules are unfair and not everyone gets a turn. We want to see our very best and brightest self reflected back at us, so we demand that immigrants mirror our idyllic vision of an America where anyone who wants it bad enough can succeed, forgetting that our history is littered with evidence to the contrary.
This mythology is dangerous. It romanticizes the migration of our ancestors as if they were driven solely by a yearning for American democracy—not poverty and war and religious persecution—and erases the fearmongering and racism coded into our immigration laws for the majority of U.S. history. It commodifies equity and stability as finite resources that must be paid for in a currency of assimilation, and pushes the idea that belonging is dependent on economic output.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is blunt—he is, after all, not a politician—but it would be a lie to claim, as many well-intentioned allies have been quick to do, that it is somehow un-American. One of our earliest immigration laws was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by white supremacists hell-bent on keeping out “job-stealing coolies” who threatened to dilute the “racial purity” of American society. The quotas that legalized denying visas based on national origin were not rescinded until 1965. The “deportation force” now being used to terrorize Latinx communities across the country was largely constructed under Obama, who in his final speech as president described immigrants as “investments” to be declined or accepted based on their likelihood of improving “our own” prospects. Dehumanizing immigrants is as American as oversized SUVs and inadequate sex education.
The bar for inclusion is and has always been higher for immigrants, particularly those who do not fit neatly into our narrow and ever changing definition of “American.” History has shown, time and again, that the privileged few will always fight any expansion of that definition—but it also shows that no matter how high we set the bar, no matter how much we try to weigh them down, immigrants will continue to vault the limits of our imagination. Perhaps if we stopped forcing them to waste so much of their strength and innovation on proving what should be apparent to anyone paying attention, we would have a country worthy of our lofty ideals.
By Densho Special Projects Coordinator Nina Wallace
[Header photo: Ellis Island, date unknown. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.]