America is a nation of immigrants, right? New Haven certainly bills itself as such — waves of Italian immigration shaped the city in the early 20th century and gave way to immigration from Latin American countries today. With the current rise of nationalist xenophobia in the United States, our sanctuary city is rallying behind its immigrants. Yale, on the other hand, has had a comparatively tepid reaction, especially from the administration. Given Yale’s donor base — including Stephen Schwarzman ’69 and his glossy new advisory position — we must ask ourselves how this will affect undocumented, green card holding and international students at Yale.
Yet, my ancestry is rooted in slavery. I write this as the great-granddaughter of a Caribbean immigrant because my great-grandmother’s sacrifices never fully resonated with me until now. This truth alienates me from the portrayal of immigration as a voluntary process.
Although I strongly believe that immigrants should be allowed to come to this country, the rhetoric surrounding immigration is flawed. Many liberals often legitimize the presence of immigrants by emphasizing the myth that immigrants created America. However, this immigrant narrative cannot fully encapsulate the experience of all Americans because our idea of immigration is misleading.
As a black woman descendant of slaves and indigenous people, it is difficult for me to claim this immigrant narrative. It is fallacious to equate the slave trade, indentured servitude and the genocide of native peoples in this country to a story of immigration. In an article for CounterPunch, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “Misrepresenting the process of European colonization of North America, making everyone an immigrant, serves to preserve the ‘official story’ of a mostly benign and benevolent USA.” In other words, presenting this nation’s history as one of immigration euphemizes the history of migration of this country. Not all those who left home and arrived on our shores did so voluntarily.
The current narrative of immigration espoused by liberal politicians is overly reductive and excludes certain groups of people. J. David Cisneros, a professor at the University of Illinois, argues that the discourse about immigration under the Obama administration stressed “values, competence, hard work and respectability — all of which become indexed to whiteness.” Much of the rhetoric used by liberal politicians often centers around immigrant entrepreneurs as opposed to migrant, blue-collar workers. We should embrace people who immigrate here, regardless of whether or not they adhere to a paradigm of respectability and individual economic “success.”
We must acknowledge the hardships of immigration and acknowledge that different hardships confront different immigrants. However, the phrase “nation of immigrants” justifies immigration through respectability politics entrenching harmful social paradigms such as the myth of the “model minority.” It predicates immigration on the basis of neoliberal values: individualism, industriousness and American exceptionalism.
In our activism, we need to reconsider how we talk about immigration when we organize protests and movements. We often hear about the nation of immigrants during rallies, protests and vigils for immigrant rights. This is certainly true at Yale and in New Haven. However, this representation of America’s history does nothing to acknowledge the people who unwillingly had this land stolen from them.
As we begin to develop tactics to resist the Trump presidency, it is more important than ever that we make social movements as inclusive as possible. Our representations of historical events illustrate our values and political stances. This is why the renaming of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College is so important. The renaming of the college represents a shift in Yale’s ideological values and a shift in mindset. Similarly, representations of immigrants in this country do a great deal to illustrate how we view them. We should not value immigrants simply for their productivity; instead, we ought to allow them to remain in the country because we shouldn’t be allowed to arbitrarily dictate who gets to stay in this country. Immigrants shouldn’t have to get the job done.
Isis Davis-Marks is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .