Dark hair and different skin, thick accents and poor English. Lazy workers, job takers, dangerous victims, refugee terrorists. Others. These are the words commonly associated with people who move to the United States from another country. We tend to think of immigration as a nuisance, either a burdensome responsibility we’d rather not claim or an inevitable threat to the comfort and safety of our country.
Recently, conversation around immigration in politics has revolved around walls and bans. Attempts at limiting access to the United States for people from certain countries have been proposed, rejected, reinstated, and rejected again. Prototypes for walls are in the works, and billions of dollars are set to build a fortress to keep Mexicans from entering the United States without the proper papers.
Though immigration is a frequent subject of news reports and proposed plans, the conversation revolves around specific immigrants and ignores a large portion of overall migrants to the United States. Though plenty of illegal immigrants come from many countries that are neither Latin American nor Middle Eastern, immigrants that come from Europe or non-minority countries are not as susceptible to discrimination or the other stigmas associated with living in the country without proper documentation.
Illegal immigration is treated as a serious offense to our national safety, and extensive laws have been put in place to prevent the entrance of undocumented immigrants. Along with sex offenses and extortion, illegal immigration is one of the top five offenses for those in federal prisons. In Arizona, unconstitutional racial profiling laws reigned in Maricopa County for years under former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The laws allowed the arrest of people who “looked like illegal immigrants.” Referring to people who look to be of Mexican descent, this phrase carries out specific meaning in this southwestern state that shares 362 miles with Mexico. According to a recent report from CNN, Arpaio “was convicted for willfully disobeying the law after a court ordered him to stop singling out drivers based on ethnicity and detaining them without charges.” Though he was pardoned by the President, his charges have not been cleared.
Another controversy of late is hosting refugees, particularly ones coming from Middle Eastern countries. Those against the settling of asylum seekers argue that immigrants coming from war-stricken countries can bring violence with them as well as pose an economic burden on the US. In response, the government has drastically decreased the number of refugees allowed to enter the country in the past few months. However, this fear-based logic ignores the fact that the definition of a refugee indicates people that simply want to find a peaceful place for their families. According to Bustle, not a single one of the refugees from the seven countries included in the travel ban have killed anyone in terrorist attacks. Furthermore, though resettlement programs offer a temporary stipend, the ultimate goal of those programs is to aid refugees to become self-sufficient.
Of course, there is no way to look at someone and know their citizenship status, and where a person is born does not indicate whether or not they are a terrorist. People move neighborhoods, cities, and states all the time. The concept of moving shouldn’t suddenly become a foreign concept when it involves people moving from different countries, especially since the targeted groups don’t solely make up the immigrants in question. In fact, a large portion of immigrants don’t jump walls or fences to get to America. In fact, according to the New York Times, the fourth largest group of undocumented immigrants is not Hispanic, but Chinese. National Public Radio reports not only that the rate of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States is declining, but that over half a million undocumented immigrants come from European countries.
By Immigrants, for Immigrants?
The first argument many American citizens have in response to anti-immigration conversations is that the USA was built by immigrants. This is true, as far as pilgrims immigrating from Europe, religious persecutions brought Europeans to spread the seeds of modern cities over two hundred years ago. However, most people don’t bring up the racial discrimination that painted the USA’s first hundred years.
Of course, the treatment of minorities in America is historically shameful, and is still disgraceful today. However, the definition of minorities has shifted somewhat in the past 100-250 years. Starting in the late 1700s, racism in the United States was largely focused on Irish immigrants. Now, Irish descendents can be publically proud of their heritage as the color of their skin has allowed their discrimination to subside. Fair treatment becomes more difficult to ascertain when discrimination is based largely on physical features. Groups with darker skin that were discriminated against then are still discriminated against today.
Even with the history of immigration in the United States, immigration is constructed as a negative idea. There are many barriers, both physical and legal, in place to prevent people from moving to the US. Though there are legal ways for undocumented immigrants to pay taxes, the process for immigrating to the United States is complicated. To even visit the US, citizens from all but 38 countries must obtain a special visa, which can take up to six months, and certain types of visas have very specific requirements. Applying for a green card or immigrant visa can be difficult; each step of the process can take a few months, meaning the whole process can take years and may result in rejection.
Despite the unfair relationship the United States shares with immigrants, both historically and presently, it can be repaired. The best way to handle an ugly past is to acknowledge it, learn from it, and move on. Recognizing that immigrants are not “others” and cannot be identified by any sort of physical traits, as well as working towards eliminating the negative stigma around immigration can help in moving the nation forward.
Supporting pro-immigration laws and refugee organizations like the International Rescue Committee can help make it easier for families and individuals to safely and legally move to the US. Social workers can help those facing discrimination by understanding “the full breadth of factors that lead to discriminatory behaviors against immigrants and their children, as the country is expected to continue to have a higher population of immigrants over the coming years.”
Immigration is not easy. Not for the immigrants adopting a new country, new culture, new language. Not for the families they leave behind, sometimes in dangerous areas where they don’t know what might happen to them. Whether immigrants are minorities, have the right papers, or are looking for a safer place, they are no different than any of your other neighbors. It should not be a marker of their identity but should be used to identify their commonalities with the founders of this country and help validate their place in it. Their current situation does not define them as people — they should be labelled only as people.
Little Italy in New York, ca.1900 – Wikimedia Public Domain
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902 – Wikimedia Public Domain
Guest Author Bio
Geo Sique is a writer from Boise, ID with a bachelor’s’ degrees in Communication and French and a background in journalism. When she’s not travelling outside Idaho, she loves rock climbing, hot springs, camping, and exploring the world around her.
Website: Georgette Siqueiros