Mothers, children, veterans, and graduates: these are the faces at the center of the immigration rights movement in the United States. In an attempt to humanize immigrants against the racist rhetoric of “raccoons,” “rapists,” and “felons,” journalists, activists and politicians are telling the stories of those that are living the American Dream and contributing economically to American society. They’ve graduated from Harvard, have successful careers, or have loving families.
But will these stories be enough to affect policy? For years, economists have touted the benefits of open immigration – and yet the Trump administration continues to hunt undocumented immigrants and remove legal protections for refugees. Though there may be economic incentives to keep these immigrants in the US, there is one crucial problem that stands in the way of all immigrants: We live in a country whose freedom was built on the exclusion and oppression of non-white people.
The denial of non-white citizenship was implemented at the inception of the United States with the Naturalization Act of 1790 – a statute that was retained until 1965. Still, importation of non-white slaves, sex workers, indentured servants, farmers, and others was commonplace, and by the 1800s, white settlers began feeling increasingly threatened by their presence. Scapegoating Chinese laborers, congressmen passed statutes to deny Chinese immigrants entry into the US without due process, enable their detention, and deport those who did not have a residence permit with them at all times. Through the 20th century, the US government further prohibited the immigration of “Arabs” and “Asians,” placed enormous caps on eastern and southern European immigration, and criminalized border crossings without a visa. By 1929, if you weren’t a white-northern-European, stepping foot on US soil could make you an instant criminal.
Passing laws to criminalize non-white populations has continued to be the cornerstone of US foreign and domestic policy today. By dehumanizing certain non-white groups as threats to American “freedom” and “security,” the US rationalizes their exclusion and encourages human rights abuses against them. Such a process has enabled the US to turn natives into foreigners in their own land, lynch Black men mythologized as “rapists,” bomb civilian “terrorists” in the Middle East, imprison and torture Muslim captives, occupy sovereign territories like the Philippines, refuse asylum to Syrian refugees, and hunt, detain and deport Mexican immigrants.
As journalists and activists tell stories of DACA-sponsored immigrants and their above-average economic and social contributions, thousands of Mexican refugees without equivalent college degrees, careers or families are being refused due process at the border in direct violation of US law. Immigrants without residence cards are being deported to their deaths in defiance of UN conventions. Undocumented women are living with domestic violence and rape because they are too afraid to go to the police. And formerly protected immigrants are being detained in centers where they are subjected to poor food, insufficient medical care, inadequate legal counsel, and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse.
The stories about the most successful immigrants might hearten us to the 700,000 benefactors of DACA, but we shouldn’t have to prove that immigrants are extraordinary to be worthy of their rights and their humanity. Until we address the white nationalism that underwrites our country’s domestic and foreign policies, we will never be able to effectively fight the racist immigration policies of its administration.