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Immigrant Solidarity Requires Valuing Life Above Labor

The fervor against President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration has focused on humanizing those who come to live in the United States from abroad. Those who oppose the orders grapple with how to make people feel something, anything, towards those who do not share their race, language, religion, or culture, that isn’t steeped in xenophobia.

Many have attempted to make the case by romanticizing their struggle and emphasizing the value of their labor, as if it isn’t enough to argue immigrants are people deserving of a life without barriers, be they the physical, educational, or otherwise. Instead, they fall back on language that turns immigrants into commodities—pointing out, for example, how they “strengthen our economy.”

One truth beneath all this flowery, yet destructive rhetoric is that so much of the wealth in the United States would not be possible without the subjugation of immigrant communities.

And yet, if the very bedrock of our humanization of others is based upon discriminative quantifiers, specifically in regards to labor, then we are allowing for existing conditions of abuse to continue should people not meet these standards.

Immigrants from various backgrounds are always presented to the public like trophies, especially during times when they are being threatened. The most popular argument concerning Muslims, refugees, and immigrants—identities which often intersect—has been built around the basis of which occupations are most valuable, and therefore which lives society will be more likely to humanize.

One glaring example of this refrain in response to Donald Trump’s executive orders is that “Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant.” This premise is thoroughly damaging to those already struggling to find safety and security in a world so intent on casting them aside.

Another example of the argument that immigrants are only good as far as they’re able to be used is the argument that they do the “dirty jobs” that many Americans won’t. Who can forget Stephen Colbert and the United Farm Workers of America teaming up to call on Americans with anti-immigrant sentiment to ‘take their jobs’ so they could somehow prove that their work is intensive, that they’re giving back to the country, and that, above all else, that they’re human.

Basing the value of personhood on the premise that they must deliver something for the sake of greater societal consumption only further normalizes reactionary sentiment concerning humanity, which often argues that one’s value is determined by what they have to give that is worth taking.

There are immigrants who do indeed help expand the technology sector, or who work tirelessly as doctors, day laborers, etc., but there are also those who don’t. Some depend on welfare programs to survive, they’re unable to go to school, or they’re struggling to find themselves in the world—and all of these people are still deserving of a place in it.

How we accommodate those in need defines us. Who we show mercy to determines our own humanity. Now, at a time when the world refugee population is “bursting at the seams,” it is even more important to be compassionate.

This doesn’t just mean expressing empathy towards those on the Trump administration’s list of banned countries, but those who are going to be facing increased militarization along the southern border, which has already claimed “countless lives.”

The Respectable Immigrant and Deportations

While the world waits for Trump’s tweaked executive order to appear, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids have begun with devastating consequences.

In one case, a 26-year-old undocumented woman was removed from a hospital while receiving treatment for a brain tumour, and then detained by ICE. A member of the young woman’s legal team was told she had her hands and ankles tied, and was denied the chance to speak to her family.

In another case, a 44-year-old man, Guadalupe Olivas Valencia, jumped from a bridge at the El Chaparral border crossing only minutes after being deported from the United States to Tijuana, where—according to a friend—he knew no one. It was his third time being deported, and the widowed father of three had been struggling to take care of his children.

His deportation came on the heels of the Trump administration’s call to accelerate the eviction of undocumented immigrants.

The belief in superior and inferior immigrant identities is pervasive among those who oppose the border wall. It declares that immigrants deserving of protection are those that provide for the nation’s economy. Their identities become only as valuable as their labor.

This belief manifests itself in media through profiles of immigrant families, where the household matriarch or patriarch is holding down multiple jobs, or in accounts of young adults forced to live in the United States away from their families so they can go to school, completely at the mercy of the U.S. government. And it lives on in the bootstrap mythology of those who “came with nothing” but have managed to create wealth that has somehow benefited other Americans.

It isn’t enough that many are forced to make expensive and hazardous journeys to the United States as a result of U.S. policies and violent interventionism abroad. They must also become economic assets or lose what little humanity they’re afforded by hostile U.S. administrations and an increasingly xenophobic populous.

Such individuals are shamed into leaving their own behind so that they may fit in, or, due to a spike in anti-immigrant violence, so that they may hopefully be spared from being killed by a bigot.

It is safe to say that many who side with Trump’s administration, who are pushing for vague policy changes such as “extreme vetting,” do not understand nor care to understand the hurdles immigrants face even after coming to the United States. They would rather ignore the interwoven challenges of finding housing and stable employment that pays a living wage, adjusting to American society, and, in many cases, having to learn a new language.

The way forward isn’t more campaigns drawing on cases of immigrants serving the needs of Americans, but a strategy that demands we recognize people as they come.

File: The silhouettes of activists holding signs seen in shadow on pavement. (Modified from Flickr / Vikalpa)
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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.