In the standard liberal story about migration, immigrants come to the US for opportunity — for a fair shake at the “American Dream.” This narrative concludes that, because of the United States’ exceptional history of inclusiveness, immigrants ought to be celebrated.
Certainly, migrants do come to the US in search of a better life. But what are the economic and political conditions that lead to their migration? Why might a better life await them here? What relationships exist between migrants’ home nations and the United States?
The liberal narrative isn’t just simplistic; it’s incomplete. What hides behind claims that the US ought to celebrate migrants who leave behind poverty-stricken or war-torn homelands is often a more sinister story. What stands behind that rosy tale of Good Samaritanism is one in which global superpowers stand accused of creating the very conditions that lead to migration to begin with.
Once we acknowledge the US’s complicity in creating these conditions, we must acknowledge that Americans shouldn’t accept migrants simply out of a sense of sympathy or goodwill. Instead, they ought to do so because the US has destabilized the very nations from which immigrants come.
On January 25, countless immigrants in the US found themselves in the midst of a nightmare. Within days of being sworn in, the new president was poised to take action on two important campaign promises: building a wall at the US-Mexico border and halting the influx of refugees from Muslim-majority countries.
The hashtag #NoWallNoBan quickly made its rounds, with rallies and marches filling city streets across the country. What was striking about #NoWallNoBan is that it spoke to the immediate needs of two distinct populations: Muslim immigrants (from countries like Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Somalia) and Latinx migrants.
The “wall building” measure speaks to Donald Trump’s proposal not to build a border wall, but to complete construction of the one that already exists. Currently, the border wall does not pass through the most treacherous sections of the desert, making border-crossing in these regions possible, but often fatal. Migrants regularly die in this desert, usually of dehydration, risking their lives to make the impossible trek to the chance of a new home.
The #NoWallNoBan movement brings together a seemingly disconnected pair — the Central or South American migrant fleeing poverty, and the Arab Muslim escaping warfare. This is hardly a new overlap.
In the spring of 2016, there was a media flurry surrounding the question: was ISIS entering the United States through Mexico? The US-Mexico border was imagined as a kind of double Achilles heel — vulnerable to both the ISIS operative seeking to terrorize the nation and to the Mexican migrant who would rob the hardworking American of his rightful job.
The border stood as a marker of where foreign Brown bodies would enter a US that belongs to those who are white, English-speaking and imagined to be the rightful inhabitants of this land.
There’s a connection between the border wall and the refugee ban. They can both only exist with the support of a general American populace that’s obsessed with the notion of homeland security. And certainly, the need for a secure homeland crystallized in the American imagination in the months that followed 9/11. Given the overdramatized American fear of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, the border symbolizes a place where goodwill toward the abject migrant would be exploited by the barbaric terrorist.
The connection between the wall and the ban means that Latinxs suffer the effects of Islamophobia, and Muslims suffer the effects of anti-Mexican xenophobia. It means, for those seeking to pass xenophobic policy, an opportunity for a “kill two birds with one stone” racism.
There’s momentum to racism; there’s a spillover effect in which racism against one group of color can quickly shift and impacts the lives of others. Racism is, in a sense, an economy of scale. Could SB 1070 — the Arizona law that legalized racial profiling and granted immigration-enforcement authority to local cops — have existed were it not a post-9/11 Islamophobic America?
In the face of this terrifying xenophobia, we cannot turn to a naïve optimism. We cannot myopically hope our way out of this new racial landscape. The best we can expect is that the combined momentum of the racist vitriol is only matched, if not outdone, by a principled and coalitional solidarity and collective resistance.