On migration and respectability

Ahh… the age old politics of respectability, most recently appearing in a HuffPo article on what immigrants contribute to the US economy.  According to the writer, an immigration lawyer with decades of experience, “People do not immigrate to the United States to go on welfare!” And “The rising tide of immigration floats the boat of the U.S. economy.”

First, let’s acknowledge that both of these claims are well supported by data.  What’s more, thanks to PRWORA and an ensuing patchwork of state laws, unauthorized immigrants are barred from receiving most forms of welfare, and authorized immigrants are severely limited in their access to public assistance.  With regard to the economy, most reputable scholars agree that immigration has a small net positive impact on the economy as a whole (the impact of immigrants on so-called “low skill” workers is worth discussing, but only inasmuch as the conversation focuses on how corporate capitalism pits workers against one another by manufacturing a sense of scarcity).

Still, the real question raised by these statements is: what, exactly, are we implying when we make such claims about immigrants and immigration?  I think we are saying that immigrants are good for us, and therefore we should, in turn, embrace immigrants.  Hey, they boost our economy, right?  And they certainly don’t use our welfare.

Look, I get the desire to use liberal platitudes and the logic of neoliberalism to smooth the way for immigrants in the United States.  I understand that lots and lots and lots of people are afraid of (brown) immigrants and want to be assured that they will not take our jobs, waste our taxpayer dollars, use our public services, challenge our national identity, and otherwise hurt us.  I get it. I really, really do.  When I teach about immigration, I almost always devote a portion of my time to combating myths and misperceptions about immigrants through empirical data, even though it makes me want to throw up a little every single time.  See, I even briefly rehashed the data above.  I figure that these questions are going to come up anyway, so I might as well nip them in the bud (note: it doesn’t actually work… people are highly mistrustful of data that don’t conform to their world view – probably, in no small part, due to the fact that media and politicians seem consistently incapable of understanding the difference between research and opinion).

But, frankly, I am tired of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.  I am tired of justifying immigration through the lens of neoliberalism and trying to convince people that we should be “pro immigrant” because immigrants benefit our country and our economy.  I’m tired of pointing to the “respectable” and self-sacrificing immigrant – the one that doesn’t use welfare – and saying “Look at how hard this person works.  Don’t they deserve to be one of us?”

It’s time that we try a new tactic, because this one isn’t working for anyone.  So instead, let’s try making the case for immigrants as living beings – not because they are good for us, but because we are all in this together, even as we struggle to make that phrase 100% inclusive.  At the end of the day, I support the ideals of social welfare – that all of us, yes – even (gasp) unauthorized migrants – deserve unconditional access to healthy food, clean water, and a safe place to live. If this means that immigrants need to “go on welfare” to meet those basic needs, then so be it.

Access to social justice cannot be framed as an overall bonus to the economy, and it shouldn’t depend on how respectable one is; it just doesn’t compute.  So, just for a little while, let’s try talking about what is right and what is good for the sake of justice – and for the sake of all of us.

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