[Marxism] Immigrants Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Talented’ to Be Welcome

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 7 18:23:58 MDT 2017

NY Times Op-Ed, Sept. 7 2017
Immigrants Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Talented’ to Be Welcome
Masha Gessen

The terms of the debate over President Trump’s decision to revoke the 
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are familiar, as are the 
terms of the larger conversation about immigration in this country: On 
one side are hardworking immigrants; on the other are politicians who 
wrongly claim that these immigrants harm the economic interests of 
native-born Americans.

As protests broke out across the United States in response to Mr. 
Trump’s move, reporters and immigrant advocates stressed that the 
administration’s actions will hurt achievers — people who have graduated 
from college, people who have bought houses, people who work for 
high-tech companies.

There is nothing wrong with this story. It’s one that most, if not all, 
immigrants like to tell about themselves — even if their actual story 
doesn’t neatly fit the narrative. In fact, as Hannah Arendt pointed out 
in her essay “We Refugees,” written in 1943 at the height of the 20th 
century’s refugee crisis, people whose stories fit the narrative least 
well — the most desperate and the worst-wounded of the immigrants — are 
especially invested in thinking of themselves as destined for success 
and, of course, as future loyal citizens.

But something goes awry when this becomes the dominant story told about 
immigrants in America. This has been happening for a number of years: 
The good people of America talk about immigrants as hard workers who 
conscientiously contribute to the economy. (I myself have made it onto a 
few lists of exemplary immigrant success stories.) In fact, DACA was 
designed to reward achievement: to qualify for the program, an applicant 
had to be in school or hold a high school diploma or equivalent, or have 
been honorably discharged from the armed forces. Those who hadn’t been 
able or lucky to meet those requirements were apparently deemed unworthy 
of staying in the country where they had lived since they were children.

When Mr. Trump issued an executive order banning entry by citizens of 
predominantly Muslim countries, American technology companies responded 
with a lawsuit in which they stressed that immigrants have founded and 
run many large tech companies. The revocation of DACA has brought forth 
similar — and much-quoted — responses from Silicon Valley. When the 
president threw his support behind a reform plan that would drastically 
reduce immigration to this country, editorial writers argued against it 
by pointing out that immigrants benefit the economy.

These arguments usually begin by stating that America is a “land of 
immigrants.” This not only is an insult to Native Americans and the 
descendants of those who were brought to this country against their will 
but also constitutes a sort of sleight of hand. It turns the stories of 
individual immigrants into the “story of America.” It’s one thing for 
individuals to base their sense of self-worth on their contribution to 
the American economy. It’s quite another to claim that America values 
immigrants because of this contribution: This paves the way to thinking 
that America should make decisions about immigrants based on whether 
they benefit the economy. It can even reframe giving safe haven to the 
persecuted as giving jobs to the well qualified.

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This is neither new nor specific to Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s 
campaign promised comprehensive immigration reform that would “bring 
millions of hardworking people into the formal economy.” Bernie 
Sanders’s platform promised to build an immigration system that would 
“match our labor market needs.” Responding to DACA’s repeal, the Senate 
Democratic leader Chuck Schumer mentioned “hardworking” people whose 
“contributions are vital to our economy.”

But what’s wrong with the decision to discontinue DACA is that people — 
not workers — will be deported. Lives — not careers — will be shattered. 
The problem is that it’s inhumane. As long as politicians consider it 
necessary to qualify the victims as “hardworking” or “talented,” they 
fail to stand up to the administration’s fundamentally hateful 
immigration agenda.

The reform package backed by Mr. Trump last month also claims to pursue 
economic aims. Neither Democrats nor Republicans — nor critics in the 
news media — have taken issue with this underlying premise: They have 
largely argued that the package proposes the wrong means for reaching 
economic ends. The plan would limit immigration to the young, highly 
educated and highly qualified. It would effectively stop immigrants from 
being able to bring family members to the United States. If an immigrant 
is but a cog in the economic machine, then what do parents, grown 
children and siblings matter? The logic is dehumanizing but hardly new 
or unique to the Republican Party. Mr. Sanders’s campaign plank argued 
for preserving family-based visas in the following terms: “Family is 
integral to a worker’s pursuit of happiness and economic productivity.”

Mr. Sanders’s platform made the barest mention of refugees. Mrs. 
Clinton’s published program made none. Mr. Trump, of course, wanted to 
drastically reduce the already small number of refugees that the United 
States accepts.

Refugees don’t fall into the economic logic of immigration. The argument 
for accepting refugees is not that they are good — for the economy, or 
for the country’s ability to meet its international obligations, or even 
because they are good people — but that America is good. This is where 
the sleight of hand of turning stories of immigrant success into the 
story of America becomes dangerous. It’s not immigrants’ economic 
contribution that makes America proud; it’s its adherence to the words 
inscribed inside the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, 
your poor/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — from the Emma 
Lazarus poem that the White House adviser Stephen Miller waved away last 
month during a news conference on immigration reform.

The controversy following Mr. Miller’s comments focused on the poem. But 
the argument for refugees is less poetic than it is pragmatic. As Arendt 
wrote in that essay, “the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has 
been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations.” This 
was just a first step, Arendt wrote: “The comity of European peoples 
went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be 
excluded and persecuted.”

If immigration is debated only in terms of whether it benefits the 
economy, politicians begin to divide people into two categories: 
“valuable” and “illegal.” When countries make people illegal, the world 
comes apart. When we agree to talk about people as cogs, we lose our 

Masha Gessen (@mashagessen) is a contributing opinion writer and the 
author of the forthcoming “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism 
Reclaimed Russia.”

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