Four Narratives to Avoid when Advocating for Immigrants

In an era of heightened xenophobia, those of us who work in educational linguistics have often found ourselves on the forefront of debates related to immigration. As I have participated in some of these debates I have noticed the reliance on certain tropes that may have unintended consequences. Some of these tropes may even offer tools for anti-immigrant activists to further advance their own agendas. Below I discuss each of them in turn.

The exceptional immigrant narrative. The exceptional immigrant narrative seeks to defend immigrants by sharing the stories of talented immigrants who have overcome great odds to become successful professionals. The desire to celebrate these amazing people is certainly understandable. However, this can easily fall into a “good” versus “bad” immigrant dichotomy that can be mobilized by anti-immigrant forces to promote their racist agenda. This can be seen by recent efforts by the Republican party to connect the renewal of DACA with funds to build a wall on the Mexican border. In this scenario, DACA recipients are framed as “good” immigrants deserving of inclusion in US society while the majority of Mexicans (including many parents of DACA recipients) are framed as “bad” immigrants who are a social threat. To avoid this pitfall it behooves those of us committed to advocating for immigrants to continue to point out that US citizens do not need advanced degrees to be treated with dignity and respect and that this should also be the case for immigrants regardless of their immigration status.

The immigrants as commodity narrative. The immigrants as commodity narrative focuses on the contributions of immigrants to the US economy. As with the exceptional immigrant narrative it is certainly understandable to want to utilize this narrative in response to claims that immigrants are supposedly a drain on the US economy. Yet, also like the exceptional immigrant narrative this too can easily fall into a “good” versus “bad” immigrant dichotomy. It is also completely dehumanizing to treat people as commodities regardless of how positively you are trying to frame them. The implication of this argument is that immigrants are only deserving of basic human rights if they are economically productive as defined in extremely narrow ways. But that’s not how human rights should work. Everybody is deserving of dignity and respect simply because they are human.

The nation of immigrants narrative. The nation of immigrants narrative claims that everybody in the US has immigrant roots and that this means our country should be more tolerant of the current wave of immigrants. The problem with this is that it is not true. Indigenous people lived on the lands that are currently called the United States for thousands of years before a group of European settlers decided to create a new country here. In addition, Africans were forcefully brought to the United States as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It can be difficult to bring up all of these historical details within every immigration debate we may find ourselves in. That said, there are easy ways of framing the issue in a way that doesn’t erase this history. For example, instead of saying “we are a nation of immigrants” an alternative could be to say “we are a nation with a long history of racial oppression as well as an equally long history of resistance to this oppression.” This both avoids the erasure of settler colonialism and slavery while also highlighting the history of resistance that contemporary immigrant rights activists have inherited.

The basket of deplorables narrative. The basket of deplorables narrative suggests that racism is an attribute of individual bad people and that by extension anti-immigration is produced by individual bad people. It is this perspective that has led to debates about whether Trump actually called African countries shitholes or not, the idea being that if he did he is a racist and if he did not he is not racist. In reality, racism is a system of oppression that promotes policies and practices that disproportionately hurt communities of color with policies that seek to criminalize immigrant communities as one example of such policies. There has been plenty of these efforts at criminalization on both sides of the political aisle with President Obama becoming known as the deporter in chief because of the large numbers of immigrants that he deported. From this perspective, Trump’s policies are not the product solely of an individual racist but can rather be understood as the logical extension of bipartisan efforts over the past several decades to criminalize immigrants. All of these efforts have been racist regardless of whether the individuals supporting them used overtly racist language or not.

We live in a sociopolitical context where the dehumanizing of immigrants is pervasive. It can be easy to fall into taps that accept this framing of the debate. It behooves those of us interested in advocating for immigrants to be vigilant to reject this framing in the narratives we produce. Our narratives must reject the premise that certain immigrants are more worthy than others. Instead, we must point to the fundamental human right for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.


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