Immigration: Why the well-meaning ‘successful immigrant’ narrative is faulty

We tend to promote foreigners by broadcasting their economic and scholarly value, instead of their intrinsic humanity.

ADAM WAYTZ: So there are often these dehumanizing narratives around immigrants and refugees, that they are barbaric or animal-like or disease-ridden and that we should be eradicating them, or at least keeping them out of the country. And I think there's a tendency to fight that narrative sometimes by talking about how much value immigrants have, or refugees have, to the United States. And what concerns me about some of these counternarratives, even though they might come from a good place, is that I don't think they really consider people in terms of human dignity.

They tend to be narratives around things like, well, "Immigrants have value because look at this person who became a great entrepreneur. Or look at this person who fled genocide in Eastern Europe and came to the U.S. and won the Nobel Prize for developing magnetic resonance imaging technology. Or look at this person who comes from an immigrant family who actually served the U.S. in the military." And so, you're not placing any intrinsic worth on immigrants or refugees as human beings, but rather as instrumentally valuable.

Even the late great Anthony Bourdain talked about how if Trump's very restrictive immigration plan for Mexican immigrants went through, where Mexican immigrants would be kicked out of the country, the restaurant industry would totally collapse. The idea being that there are so many Mexican immigrants, some undocumented immigrants, working behind the scenes of restaurants that this represents a very important labor force. And even if the sentiment was well-intentioned, we're not getting the argument that in addition to these people as valuable members of the economy, these people are also human beings.

It's always easier to dehumanize others who are socially distant from us, people who speak different languages from us, who live in different places from us, who have different circumstances from us, who look differently from us. So, simply by the virtue of being foreign, we tend to dehumanize at a baseline level anyone who comes from outside of the United States. So there are a lot of dehumanizing forces working against our capacity to develop sympathy for these outsiders. But I think a remarkable example of a countervailing force comes not from the U.S. case necessarily, but comes from the case of people fleeing Syria. And so we can perhaps recall the image of Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who sadly washed ashore, fleeing civil war.

And when that image of this deceased boy washed ashore circulated on social media and the front pages of newspapers, donations to refugee-oriented charities absolutely spiked. So I think that represents the power of a single human individual, or a single human narrative to generate more sympathy for the plight of immigrants and refugees.

  • There's a tendency to fight dehumanizing narratives about immigrants and refugees with stories about how much value they have to the United States, in terms of economic and academic achievements and abilities.
  • Though these counternarratives might come from a good place, Adam Waytz doesn't believe they "really consider people in terms of human dignity." They fail to call out immigrants and refugees inherent dignity.
  • The image of the deceased Aylan Kurdi washed ashore evoked immense sympathy for refugees. Besides showcasing their economic values, it highlighted their shared humanity.


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