A popular response to anti-immigrant rhetoric and action in the US is the massive ideological effort to prove how valuable immigrants are to our country.
Trendy t-shirts tell us that it is immigrants that make America great.
If you listen to mainstream liberal pundits, like I do, you will be told that immigrants are these angelic citizens who are eager to work selflessly to build our great nation. In response to conservative talking points that immigrants are criminals, you will be told that they commit less crime than the average native citizen. In response to white nationalist claims that immigrants corrupt our culture, you will be told that they have in fact (again, very selflessly) created what we know as modern American heritage.
Even the institution I call home has taken this principled stand. Shortly after Trump’s first travel ban, my college’s museum removed art created by immigrants, as a way to show how much they contribute to our institution, and the rest of the country.
I have few doubts that the act was well-intentioned. But when we center our love for fellow marginalized human beings around their productivity, what status are we truly assigning to immigrants?
Where does this production narrative leave me, and other second-generation immigrant girls making their way through college?
Our museum was well-intentioned, but I cannot help but think that if I do not do the necessary amount of labor to contribute to this society and this country, I will be completely worthless.
Those who are missing from this mainstream, production-oriented immigrant narrative are the migrants killed by vigilantes while crossing the border. Those who disobeyed the state and ended up on the wrong side of a prison wall. Those who reserve their patriotism for their home countries in Central or South America, or for no country at all.
These are the people who do not view their original cultures as a morsel to be melted into a boiling pot, who do not see their exploited labor yield enough money to feed their families even as they work to fill our supermarkets with produce.
What of the immigrants who are not “valuable”, or are indeed “valuable”, so painfully valuable to us that we force them to build a house with a broken leg.
No matter how well-intentioned, efforts to define immigrants by their material accomplishments, such as artwork, legitimize the systems that exploit labor, and our desire to see immigrants become “productive”.
There are better ways to show respect for immigrants. The first step is to understand that human beings are valuable whether or not they contribute to our society in ways we deem acceptable.
The characterization of immigrants as “valuable” to America is a weak argument against white nationalist rhetoric, because the question of immigrant humanity becomes about their level of productivity. The opposition can simply use fake news, or even real instances (however few) of immigrants committing crime or abusing welfare to claim they are unproductive, and therefore subhuman.
When you root a respect for immigrants in their unwavering humanity, productive or no, it becomes much harder to argue for white nationalist policy. What evidence can the opposition use to claim that unconditionally full persons are less than human, rather than pure subjectivity, an approach that would fully expose their racism?
To the Davis Museum: next time there is an anti-immigrant action that requires protest, don’t hide your art. Flaunt it. Conduct a special exhibit on immigrant art, showcasing the real human beings that made these beautiful objects, rather than drawing attention only to the objects themselves.
I genuinely believe that students such as myself have more to learn from immigrants themselves than from their decontextualized labor.