The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority indicated on Nov. 12 that the body is leaning toward shutting down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA, an Obama-era program, allows for undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children to become eligible for a work permit instead of immediate deportation. The Supreme Court’s decision puts the lives of nearly 700,000 active DACA recipients in jeopardy.
This news provoked a series of tweets from President Donald Trump and his supporters attempting to demonize DACA recipients. Trump asserted, “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals.” The immediate response from liberal politicians and the media was, of course, outrage. Trump’s claim is racist and false: a prerequisite to participate in DACA is no felony or serious misdemeanor convictions.
The token reaction was to defend immigrants from accusations that they are criminals and instead, assert that they are actually beneficial to the U.S. because they are good, hard-working people. Articles were written featuring DACA recipients and their life stories — how they persevered through adverse circumstances and ended up with successful and prestigious jobs. “DACA recipients are nurses and doctors. Innovators at major businesses. Teachers educating our children” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Twitter. “They are indispensable to our communities.”
Idealizing these types of narratives perpetuates the narrative of the “good immigrant,” which posits that immigrants are really just like any other U.S. citizen and are making a significant contribution to society. But what exactly is a good immigrant, and why must they be the standard? This narrative suggests that the validity of immigrants’ presence in this country is dependent on them meeting a certain standard of productivity and success — a standard the average U.S.-born citizen is not held to. It creates a social hierarchy — as if in order to gain the right to live, immigrants must prove themselves worthy of it.
Instead of calling out the bigotry behind Trump’s demonization of migrants, liberals often play into this narrative by responding that DACA recipients are not actually criminals and therefore deserve to gain U.S. citizenship. These moderate Democrat responses to Trump’s racist assertion are only reinforcing this contrived dichotomy between good and bad, as though the value of a person’s life and whether they deserve safety and security is an open question.
The whole immigrant success story in itself exploits immigrants’ suffering and hardship and holds them to an arbitrary standard of being “one of the good ones.” Politicians reference how immigrants embody the American Dream and enrich our society. This model of thinking is problematic and often plays into racist stereotypes.
The myth of the model minority, for example — generally attributed to Asian Americans — characterizes the whole demographic as being relatively socioeconomically successful and thus as occupying a nebulous position of superiority. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, arguably the most visible Asian American in the U.S. political sphere right now, has reinforced this narrative by making jokes about being Asian and good at math.
While peddling the model minority myth, Yang also spreads the idea of the good immigrant. He tweeted during the second Democratic debate, “My father immigrated here as a graduate student and generated over 65 US patents for GE and IBM … That’s the immigration story we should be telling.” He mentions his father being “a pretty good deal” for the country, as though immigrants must have some transactional value to stay or be treated with humanity.
Yang is not the only politician to commodify immigrants in this way, but the practice itself is toxic, especially when peddled by influential figures. This mindset presents immigrants as bad from the outset and demands they prove they are deserving and assimilate or risk everything. Immigrants should not have to prove themselves worthy of being in this country. They are human beings who are just as entitled to a good life as everyone else.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 25, 2019 print edition. Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]