Debunking the myth of the ‘productive immigrant’

Opinion by Jasmine Sun
Oct. 16, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

Sudanese student at Stanford detained, handcuffed at JFK airport.An Iranian MIT student home from winter break is barred from returning to the U.S.” Trump’s New Immigration Restrictions Will Slow Scientific Advancement in the U.S.

In the wake of Trump’s “Muslim ban” (or, more accurately, Executive Order 13769, which restricted immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations), headlines like these plastered news sites and social media feeds, inciting outrage and fury from myself and many of my peers. So we cheered when enforcement of the ban was blocked by federal district judge James Robart and again when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals called the revised ban (Executive Order 17380) dripping “with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination.”

After all, the situation seemed ridiculous on every front. Promising, law-abiding and ambitious young people seeking higher education and professional careers were being denied access to America: This seemed a direct contradiction of the values our nation was built on.

What I failed to acknowledge in my disgust, however, were the thousands of immigrants left out of this exceptionalist narrative. By focusing on academic achievement as a litmus test for a person’s deservingness to occupy space, I had granted legitimacy to the myth of the American meritocracy.

Never mind refugees seeking asylum from political unrest and natural disasters in their home countries; never mind seasonal farm workers who pick strawberries from dawn to dusk under the blistering sun and even crueler pay.

Instead, according to the meritocracy, everyone in America is blessed with success directly proportionate to their individual competency and effort. Any immigrant who isn’t a scholar at an elite university like Stanford, Yale or MIT has not earned the right to be here — a standard that natural-born Americans would never be held to.

This productivity-driven approach to immigration policy is all too prevalent across the mainstream media, establishment politics and college campuses (including our own). Yet, it is also one that is utterly counterproductive to democratic goals.

In fact, not only does this perspective hold legal immigrants to unrealistically high standards of success, but it also treats human beings as standing reserves: reduced to the sole purpose of fuel for America’s economy. We must begin to see immigrants as independent agents, not disposable utilities and token minorities to add splashes of color to a white canvas. Until then, our empathy will not extend beyond our borders.

Take a look at the newly revised Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, announced by Republican senator Tom Cotton on Aug. 2 and promoted by the White House. The GOP touted this policy as a transition to a merit-based system that privileges educated, English-speaking immigrants who possess “skills that contribute to our economy.” It is predicted to halve the number of legal immigrants currently coming to the United States each year, with the greatest effect on lower-income immigrants leaving economic strife in their home countries.

In other words, the Trump administration has responded to our failures to understand the real problem with Trump’s immigration agenda and to prioritize the well-being of the least fortunate among us. When liberals treat the exclusion of model minorities as their principal concern, they green-light the dehumanization of less privileged border crossers, giving tacit support to damaging policies like the RAISE Act.

Instead, it’s crucial that any serious challenge to the nativism of the alt-right unreservedly rejects the meritocratic paradigm. Contrary to what we learned in ECON 1, human beings cannot and should not be defined by their positive externalities — at least not if we want to maintain some semblance of respect for human rights.

After all, the core problem with immigration restriction is not one of limiting the prestige of American research universities or restricting our economic capacity. Rather, it’s one of xenophobia: plain and simple.


Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.

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