Chin: Lady Liberty Weeps

We must disrupt the harmful narrative of the United States as a patron.

by Clara Chin | 2/7/17 12:30am

On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the admission of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries and announced that Syrian refugees be indefinitely blocked from entry into the United States. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said during the signing. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.” The statement draws on a false narrative persistent through history that portrays the U.S. as a patron and refugees and immigrants as freeloaders or threats. Rather than believe this reductive narrative, we should remember the struggles of refugees relocated to the U.S.

Trump suggests that the banned refugees would not “support our country,” drawing upon racial dialogue used to disenfranchise immigrants as well as people of color. These assumptions are often paradoxical. Anti-immigration politicians frequently say that immigrants take away jobs from American people while also positing that they do not contribute to American society. This, of course, is contradictory.

We should not have to outline ways in which refugees support the United States, since this pro-immigration argument perpetuates classism and takes away the simple argument of empathy. Still, we can make the economic argument. Between 2006 and 2012, more than two-fifths of start-up tech companies in Silicon Valley had at least one foreign-born founder. Immigrants and refugees have contributed to a rich body of literature, art and culture — Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection “Interpreter of Maladies” and most recently, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” both works featuring refugee and immigrant stories, won Pulitzer Prizes. Aside from economics and academia, refugees relocating to cities like Concord and Manchester in New Hampshire and Lewiston, Maine have contributed to their communities in real, noticeable ways.

But the relationship between the United States and refugees is not so simple as giver and receiver. The United States was politically involved with many of the countries which refugees flee. In some cases, the U.S. partly played a role in creating the plight of the displaced. The U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War before it accepted refugees from Vietnam, creating complicated racial relations in Vietnam and even violating human rights, such as the killing of innocent civilians in the My Lai massacre. Refugees, as the saying goes, are “here because [Americans] were there.”

We often speak of immigrants and refugees as though they simply appeared, forgetting the important context of colonial and hegemonic power and the scars of such power in former colonies. Refugees are often criticized for exploiting the “riches” of the U.S. but recall that colonial history serves as a reminder that the exploitation often works the other way around.

Focusing on the act of immigration limits our viewpoint on the refugees, undermining their struggles once they come to the United States. The existence of culturally-centered districts like Little Saigon, Koreatown and Chinatown in many American cities — in addition to the invocation of ethnic food trends in the mainstream — create the impression that immigrants are fully integrated into American society. They are sometimes left jobless or with insufficient housing, landing only seasonal jobs and being placed in bedbug-infested apartments. And then there are the moral, emotional and personal struggles that displacement can cause.

Nguyen called refugees “zombies of the world,” reminding us that immigrants and refugees have been separated, sometimes forcibly, from their homeland. They face cultural alienation in the United States, notably from Trump himself. Trump equated refugees to terrorists, calling for a need to ban refugees because they represent the “threats” that United States soldiers fight. This is forgetting the very reason refugees flee: to escape terror, which to them poses an immediate threat; the Islamic State’s most frequent victims are not Americans or Europeans but their fellows in the Middle East. Religious paranoia and Islamophobia, while issues in their own right, are also part of the broader issue about how we permanently alienate displaced people in the United States.

Perhaps refugees should “love our people deeply.” But should we not return the favor? Trump’s comments encode Islamophobia and a lack of empathy for refugees, highlighting the erasure and invisibility of immigrants. Instead of demonizing potential refugees by equating them with terrorist threats, we should strive for an attitude of empathy. Reducing the admission of refugees into the United States to a patron-beneficiary relationship skirts the real issues faced by refugees and immigrants.