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The Right Kind of Immigrant: The Narrative of Deserving and Undeserving Immigrants

By Sujatha Fernandes on June 14, 2019
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Aarti Shahani founded Families for Freedom—a Brooklyn-based immigrant rights organization—after her father faced deportation. Shahani’s father was a legal permanent resident from India who was accused of not properly reporting foreign sales to the IRS from his small, family-run, electronics store. He had not lived in his home country since the 1950s, but the U.S. government planned on sending him back. Shahani—who is now a correspondent for NPR—was eventually able to halt his deportation, but in the midst of it all, she found that some organizations weren’t as supportive, and labeled her father a “bad immigrant.”

Unfortunately, narratives like this one are common. When it comes to conversations about immigrants in the U.S., there exists a binary between those who are “bad”—delinquent, criminal and deportable, and those who are “good”—high-achieving, worthy and deserving.

Photo by Bill Clark via Getty Images

In fact, this idea of the “good” immigrant was central to the legislative campaign for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a proposal to provide a path to legal status for certain undocumented immigrant youth who first entered the country as minors. It was first introduced into Congress on August 1, 2001. “Good” and model undocumented youth were handpicked by advocacy organizations to tell their stories of deserving-ness to Congress and the media—stories with similar and specific themes that were emphasized by legislators and echoed across various platforms. The students were always high achieving, usually valedictorians of their classes, and shown as being “of good moral character” and “hard-working.” They were presented as fully assimilated into American culture and society with few ties to their birth countries; as innocent of the crime of illegally entering the United States, which was blamed on their parents; as seeking a meritocratic success, in line with American values and ideals; and as patriots, who were willing to defend America. Not only were they “good,” they were the best—they had to be.

Although the aim of these narratives was to identify some immigrants as deserving and worthy of citizenship, the result was a binary and problematic distinction between “good” and “bad” immigrants that is devoid of humanity. There is a class distinction between upwardly mobile, “assimilated,” and self-reliant immigrants whose stories could humanize them—and anonymous, foreign, undocumented laborers who fill the ranks of an informal and exploited labor force. This emphasis on immigrants as free-willed individuals who are guided by their choices and are unaffected by systemic injustices, ignores the hierarchical U.S. racial order and the broader, unequal, global capitalist system.

Narratives of deserving and undeserving immigrants have a long history in the United States. Scholar Susan Coutin argues that during the 1990s, Central American asylum applicants were classified by suspension hearings according to prototypes of deserving or undeserving subjects. Undeserving subjects were considered a drain on state resources, those who would not assimilate. And those who were deserving had to demonstrate that they were being singled out for political persecution or that they were uniquely needy. These prototypes were revived in the case of the Dreamers, who had to show their deserving-ness and exceptionalism by focusing on their assimilation, high achievements, and roots in American culture.

Photo by Balogh David/Eye Em via Getty Images

After the DREAM Act failed to pass on numerous occasions, youth activists embarked on a campaign to pressure former President Barack Obama to grant Administrative Relief to young undocumented people. On June 15, 2012, Obama announced DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that gave a limited group of Dreamers a temporary work permit and reprieve from deportation.

But even then, the messaging of mainstream immigrant organizations about deserving immigrants and model citizens continued to dominate public discourse. When Obama announced a new measure of reprieve in November 2014 for undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, he drew on the very binary terms that immigrant organizations had constructed, describing the target of immigration enforcement actions as “felons not families,” and “criminals, not children.” So when the Obama administration deported more than two and a half million immigrants, they automatically fell into those labels—“felons,” “criminals,” or “gang members,”—bad immigrants who failed to prove they were worthy of residing in the U.S. And more recently, as the Trump administration attempts to roll back DACA, some immigrant and Dreamer advocates have reverted once again to using the language of deserving and undeserving immigrants.

But this approach is flawed. It hurts the immigrant community and dismisses the structural and systemic injustices that contribute to the country’s unequal access to opportunity.

Luckily, stories like that of Shahani are challenging the idea that some migrants are criminals and hence, deportable. After the passage of DACA, many undocumented youth rejected the deserving-ness trope that guided much of their public image. DACA recipients, undocumented students, and other immigrants have begun to tell more in-depth stories that reject the good-and-bad immigrant frame. It’s a shift we should all move towards, because no one should have to prove that they are worthy of being treated with dignity.

[ Sujatha Fernandes is a professor of political economy and sociology at the University of Sydney and a visiting scholar at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. She is the author of several books and creative works about global social movements, storytelling, migration, and culture. Her latest book is Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (Oxford University Press, 2017). ] 

Featured Image by: pbombaert via Getty Images

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