Immigration: A More Complex Issue than the Public Knows

Paige Welch, Staff Writer |

Most of us know that our new political climate and administration are antagonistic to the lives of immigrants. But the current political atmosphere — and how it is portrayed in the media sources provided to us — does not even get close to forming the full picture.

The term “immigration” is often associated with dark skin and minority demographics. Trump’s anti-immigration policy targets countries with large Muslim populations and where most of the citizens are people of color. These are not coincidentally related things. It is an active showcase of racism and xenophobia, something that the U.S. has been doing way before Trump was elected. For example, back in the 1990’s during Clinton’s administration, the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented openly gay immigrants from coming into the country because they were considered to have a “psychological disorder.” This was in place until 1999. The irony of coming to the country of freedom to escape persecution in their native lands only to be denied solely based on their sexual orientation is ludicrous.

Our history is laced with fear and mistrust of immigrants. All groups that have migrated to this country have faced backlash at one time or another. Japanese-Americans were forced to relocate to internment camps during WWII, German-Americans were scrutinized after the outbreak of WWI, Irish-Americans were compared to beasts during the Enlightenment era, Chinese-Americans were excluded from working in the country for several decades, and let us not forget about the forced transportation of Africans to the U.S. so that they could be used as slaves. This is just the surface of the immigrant experience in the past and many other groups have had to face the pain of being considered “alien” as they tried to start new lives.

In the current political climate, the immigration issue has been reduced to race and religion. As the government and media feed on the idea that all acts of terrorism come from the outside, our fear ends up making the average American citizen afraid of those that are not like us. Regardless of the statistic that most acts of terrorism in recent years have been committed by white American natives, our vulnerability is taken advantage of and used as a tool to remove all “imperfections” from the skin of the U.S. population. The truth is that white-passing people are not considered to be immigrants by the public, or at least not in a way that has a negative connotation. Western Europeans, with their white skin and “approachable” languages, are more easily accepted into the community (though I am not trying to generalize experiences, rather trying to draw a picture of white privilege in relation to immigration).

Every decade of immigration policies has brought a new fear to the center of our hearts. We are told to be wary of our way of life being taken from us by these people, and I believe that white, English speaking Americans are afraid of becoming the minority population because they have seen what happens to those on the outside. They have witnessed firsthand the erasure of language and culture as well as heard the stories of those that have been left without the ability to communicate because they have not been given the chance. Politics has become a race to prevent that from happening, so we continue to use people of color, and particularly immigrants, as scapegoats for our own insecurities.

Even as I’m writing this article, I’m aware of the fact that I’m not an immigrant, that I’m white, and that English was my first language. So what do I know about this privilege? What I know is consisted of the narratives of those that have actually experienced racism, and it pains me to be a citizen of a country that is so hypocritical and cold towards other human beings. Humans cannot be illegal. They are not property, they are not objects, nor are they imported goods. I would rather live in a country that is as diverse as promised by the words written on the Statue of Liberty than one that does everything in its power to whitewash and westernize our culture. It’s important, especially now, to be self-aware that our fear can be problematic. Once it is directed toward immigrants that fit a certain expectation or stereotype we have in our heads, stereotypes that have been ingrained in us since birth, we should stop and think: “Why am I afraid? Who/what is the real cause of this fear?” Perhaps knowing that we are being used by a government to fulfill a certain “hidden” agenda, we can feel equally betrayed as citizens.

One SUNY Oneonta student, Mairéad Farinacci, was asked about her opinion on immigration and how the experience differs according to race. Her mother is an Irish immigrant, and she claims that immigration is “a loaded topic because you don’t want to invalidate the struggles that did exist for all who came over from Europe. At the time, they were ostracized, victims of racially charged violence, and prejudice.” Their experiences as white immigrants in the past should not be ignored or taken lightly.

In relation to her mother’s own experience, she says, “My mom did not come over in today’s description of ‘legal.’ She was undocumented. As a white woman, this wasn’t as quickly questioned or brought up. When my mom faces people today who speak of the audacity of immigrants coming over in such a way, she can’t help but wonder how they’d react if she told them she did the same. They would quickly have to reveal to her that what they are most concerned about isn’t the documentation but the color of skin.” It is an uncomfortable realization to make, but at the same time, it is sobering to know that history will repeat itself, targeting a different group.

According to Farinacci, the one thing to do now to improve your knowledge of immigration and to better differentiate the experiences of immigrants according to their skin color is to “let that past merely shed light on what people of color have been facing in this administration. History does repeat itself, but it also transforms to embody elements that some have experienced before.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I agree full-heartedly with the importance of looking at history and how powerful groups have repeatedly used fear to target a select group of people. I encourage readers to examine their fears and analyze their own prejudices in order to shape a well-informed political stance on the topic of immigration, including being aware of all layers and complexities.

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