We claim victory because the Dreamers can stay, the Muslim ban failed and Trump’s approval rating dips after every ridiculous comment. But what’s flown under the radar is the lazy and dehumanizing rhetoric Trump’s immigration bonanza has engendered nationwide and how those who claim to value immigrants are complicit in spreading it, if unwittingly.
Take any televised debate. The conservative asks what value we gain from accepting refugees or economic migrants. The liberal mentions the immigrant valedictorian, the Ph.D. student, the war hero. The conservative brings up MS-13 and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s an unhelpful exercise that I’ve fallen for too; in the wake of Trump’s “s—hole countries” comment, I reposted an op-ed from the New York Times highlighting a Ghanian immigrant who died saving Americans from a fire. “See Trump?” I thought, “Immigrants make us better!”
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating an immigrant’s success, but we must do so for the right reasons. If we highlight stories of immigrant exceptionalism too often, they seem less like exceptions and more like the rule, justifying the exclusion of immigrants who don’t meet such lofty standards. If we highlight only the valedictorian or the veteran, we reinforce the conservative narrative that a minority of immigrants are deserving while the rest are not. Just 2 percent of Americans have a doctorate degree and 7.3 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces. Immigrants shouldn’t have to prove themselves to be within the top one percent of America’s moral elite just to be tolerated, let alone accepted.
This is the premise of Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, which assigns immigrants “points” for higher education levels and English-speaking skills (ironic given the president’s linguistic capabilities). Large “extended” families (including parents and siblings) cost points. It’s like one of those Miss America pageants whose locker rooms the pervert-in-chief liked to stroll through.
But Trump isn’t the only one with a point-based immigration plan. Canada has a very similar system — a 67/100 score makes you eligible to immigrate — which I would argue is also counterproductive and dehumanizing. But Canada’s process is at least more streamlined; more immigrants are accepted after a much shorter waiting period. So far, Trump has used “merit-based” as code for “no one is quite good enough for America.” His “merit-based” system proposes cutting legal immigration in half.
Economically, merit-based immigration is troublesome. Skilled immigrants are of course valuable to the economy. But studies suggest that the entire agriculture system would collapse if Trump deported all 11 million undocumented, unskilled immigrants estimated to be in the U.S. Not to mention, skilled and unskilled immigration are positively correlated, meaning that keeping the “best” while keeping out the “rest” is simply not realistic.
Yet these economic arguments — although they ultimately support my point — highlight the exact phenomenon I’m denouncing. Our current rhetoric judges immigrants by what good they can do for us, the Americans who are already here. This rhetoric frames immigration as a transactional issue, which it isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be.
It’s paradoxical, especially considering Trump heralds assimilation into American society as the ultimate goal for immigrants. Why should we expect immigrants to “love and respect our country,” a precondition Trump proposed in his State of the Union address, when they’re judged from the get-go as nothing more than an investment or a liability?
Last time I checked, the Statue of Liberty reads “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Not “give me your war heroes, your anesthesiologists, your educated few yearning to start Fortune 500 companies.” We should undoubtedly recognize the work ethic, heroism and accomplishments of many of America’s immigrants. But we should also recognize that it’s unreasonable to expect every immigrant to cure cancer — or even contribute to American society in a discernible way. God knows not every native-born American does.
I support refugees from Syria, Myanmar and Iraq who want nothing more than to live. I support economic migrants from Mexico and Central America who want nothing more than to make a living. I support an American society that believes immigrants to be worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of their economic prowess or English fluency.
Besides Mr. Trump, under your own rules, you’d have deported your own grandpa. But there’s still time to make amends; Bavaria is nice this time of year.
Zach Goodwin is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.