“They’re Not Sending Their Best”
The problem with the merit narrative in U.S. immigration
Gathered atop a boulder in Central Park the weekend after the Trump administration rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), activists with the Cosecha movement channeled their frustration through a battle-worn bullhorn. Leading an estimated 3,000 protesters, Cosecha organizers marched from the Trump International Hotel in Columbus Circle, past the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s Art Nouveau temple, usually adorned with a #BlackLivesMatters or “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” banner, and into the park. Across the United States, thousands of DACA recipients, immigration activists, and dismayed citizens surged into city streets, parks, and plazas to protest the latest nativist immigration policy implemented by the Trump administration.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has vilified and scapegoated immigrants, promoting nativist and racist immigration policy by blaming documented and undocumented immigrants for job loss among native-born U.S.-Americans, terrorism, drug use, disease, and crime. His liberal opponents, however, have reacted by attempting to temper the administration’s policies rather than crafting a platform to promote economic and social well-being among immigrants, protect them from deportation, or reckon with the role of U.S. policy in international migration. Instead of explicitly challenging the nativism and white supremacy behind these policies, liberal commentators and democratic politicians praise the achievements and economic contributions of a select group of immigrants whom they perceive as particularly deserving — the young, college graduates, and employees at Fortune 500 companies. They have bought into an old binary that segregates deserving from undeserving immigrants. This narrative ignores the history of immigration in the United States and the systematic influences behind immigration like war, economic development, and climate change. It is a flimsy base on which to construct an inclusive, fair, and peaceful immigration policy.
DACA recipients and other immigration activists dismiss this distinction, and demand protection for the eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. DACA offers undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and have no criminal record protection from deportation and the legal papers necessary to work, attend university, and drive. Educated in U.S. schools, raised in metropolises and farm towns across the country, and gainfully employed as teachers, software engineers, and doctors, DACA recipients are the quintessential deserving immigrant. Rescinding DACA made 800,000 such young adults vulnerable to deportation, but the protest organizers demanded more than its reinstatement. They insisted on legal protection for the eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Speakers recited testimonies about their experiences as undocumented immigrants, lambasted the Trump administration for its xenophobia and racism, and insisted that they would not be pitted against their own families in their quest for rights and citizenship.
Media coverage of the administration’s decision emphasized the outstanding achievements of DACA recipients and their assimilation into U.S. communities. Commentators described them as, “American in every way but their papers.” Newspapers identified DACA-recipients as Dreamers, a branding picked up in an effort to pass the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. First introduced in 2001, and most recently reintroduced in July, 2017, the DREAM Act has not passed Congress and many immigration activists eschew the title. Media coverage depicted these young people as extraordinary, and thus worthy of legal protection. By this logic, the millions of immigrants without documentation are burdens on the United States who should be removed.
Adopting the deserving/undeserving binary strengthens the position of hardline immigrant opponents because it does not challenge the argument that immigrants are a drain on the United States and problem to be solved. Immigration hardliners do not exempt exceptional individuals from their broad attacks on non-native born individuals. Announcing the termination of DACA, Trump’s attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, repeatedly described DACA recipients as “illegal aliens.” Outside the capitol, immigration opponents prefer a punchier insult, illegals.
“Illegals” is an effective slur because it depicts immigrants as inherently criminal — at best, they are job stealers, at worst, the rapists and drug dealers from Trump’s dystopian conjurings of American carnage. Gone is one’s familial connections, profession, talents and aspirations. Gone is history — an individual’s and the nation’s. The concept of illegal immigration had no legal significance in the United States until the twenties.  The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was the first comprehensive, national immigration restriction. It imposed quotas and created the category of “illegal alien” for individuals present in the United States without government approval. Supported by a resurgent Klu Klux Klan, which had expanded its enemies list from African Americans to include Jews, Catholics, and the foreign-born,  Johnson-Reed reflected a fear that the collapse of global empires following World War I would overrun the United States with foreign people and destroy the national character.
The creation of the illegal immigrant as a legal and social category through the Johnson-Reed Act was a xenophobic reaction to the cultural, economic, and political changes engendered by the arrival of millions of immigrants over the past half-century. Between the middle of nineteenth century and the end of World War I, an estimated twenty five million immigrants arrived in the United States. Many were fleeing famine, political repression or religious ostracism and hoped to find new economic and social opportunities in the United States. Immigration scholars often describe the former as “push” factors, and the latter as “pull” factors, but this distinction primarily it serves to segregate deserving (pushed) migrants from undeserving (pulled) ones. It cannot convey the multitude of factors that drive immigration. Religious discrimination thwarts economic opportunity; an immigrant might be simultaneously pushed out of one’s country because of discrimination and pulled to the U.S. by the prospect of a job.
Reducing immigration to a matter of an individual’s deserving or undeservingness obscures the systems that produce migration. War, economic displacement, industrialization, and climate change — all of which the United States contributes to on a global scale — are major causes of immigration. European migrants in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were pushed, pulled, yanked, drawn, scuttled, and shoved out of their home countries and across the globe. Those who came to the U.S. before the twenties faced no legal restriction or numerical limit. Industrial capitalism required a labor force. Immigrants supplied it, usually at a lower cost than their native-born counterparts. As cities and hinterlands swelled with new arrivals, politicians looked for ways to stem their flow.
Reading contemporary immigration debates is like stepping in a time machine back to the passage of Johnson-Reed. In the twenties, opponents of immigration used language to advocate for national quotas that was nearly indistinguishable from what we hear today. “The time once was when we welcomed to our shores the oppressed and downtrodden people from all the world, but they came to us because of oppression at home and with the sincere purpose of making true and loyal American citizens,” argued a Texan congressman in 1921. “That time has passed now … there can be nothing so dangerous as for us to allow the undesirable foreign element to poison our civilization and thereby threaten the safety of the institutions that our forefathers have established for us.”  Despite what contemporary immigration debates might suggest, the Texan was not talking about Mexicans or Latinos, but about Southern and Eastern Europeans.
What has changed over the past century is not the language that immigration opponents use to discuss the immigrants, but the geographic origins of their targets. Economic, military, and cultural factors dictate which foreign people are perceived as a threat and thus unwanted. The Johnson-Reed act placed no numerical restrictions on immigration from Central and South American. Agricultural businesses in the U.S. West and South relied on their (largely seasonal) labor. Instead, the quota system drastically reduced immigration numbers from Southern and Eastern European, in an attempt to restore the demographic makeup of the U.S. before the influx of Italians, Russians, Catholics, and Jews. It barred Asian and African immigrants, buttressing discriminatory immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement halting immigration from Japan. Advocates of the immigration restrictions portrayed Northern Europeans as hardworking and assimilable — deserving immigrants. They demonized recent arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe as unassimilable moochers and saboteurs who were undermining U.S. society.
The civil rights movement of the post-World War II era, which included Chicano and Asian-American social movements, demanded a new immigration policy. The national quota system reinforced the political, social, and economic power of white Protestants in the United States. New immigration policy embraced liberal pluralism, the participation of diverse groups in politics, while confining immigration through wartime nationalism.  The 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act replaced national quotas that discriminated against specific regions with a global, but evenly distributed, quota.
Hart-Cellar gave preference to applicants with in-demand job skills and family connections. Asian and African immigrants gained access to legal immigration but Latin Americans faced new numerical limits. This change transferred the appellation of “illegal immigrant” from Southern and Eastern Europeans to Latinos, Asians, and Africans. Without explicitly adhering to racial preference, the 1965 act perpetuated the ideology of deserving and undeserving immigrants.  Individuals who qualified for legal immigration, the act implied, possessed skills and knowledge that made them superior to those who could not secure immigration papers. They deserved the privilege of residence, and perhaps even citizenship, in the United States.
One year after the election of Trump, the idea of deserving and undeserving immigrants holds renewed power in the U.S. political discourse. Besieged by xenophobic and racist attacks on non-native-born and non-white individuals, liberal supporters of immigration are pleading with their political representatives to protect young, accomplished, undocumented immigrants. Big corporations, particularly in tech, trot their DACA-recipient employees to Capitol Hill to demonstrate their contributions to the American economy. Immigration activists, on the other hand, envision radical changes to the immigration system. In mid-December, young immigrants occupied congressional offices and the tunnels linking capitol buildings to compel government representatives to attach a clean DREAM act to the continuing resolution for government funding. Congress deferred. Protesters are putting their bodies and legal status on the line –refusing to trade protections for themselves for increased deportation, detention, surveillance, and border patrol in their communities.
The United States’ immigration history is not an idyllic narrative of acceptance, individual ingenuity, and hard work. It is a history of exclusion and discrimination, but also of transformation. The immigration activists demanding protection and citizenship for the eleven million undocumented immigrants in the United States embody a new, international vision for immigration and social mobility. These young people deserve the protection and dignity conferred by U.S. citizenship. So do their families and friends. Their migration represents the latest chapter in a saga older than the nation itself.
Sarah Sklaw is a PhD candidate in the History department at New York University. She studies the intersection of gender, international development, migration, and U.S. empire during the Cold War.
 Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
 Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (New York: Liveright, 2017), 185.
 Seth Holmes and Heide Castañeda, “Representign the ‘European refugee crisis’ in Germany and beyond: Deservingness and difference, life and death.” American ethnologist 43 no 1 (Feb 2016), 13.
 67th Congressional Record, 511-15, 1921.
 Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 234.
 Ngai, Impossible Subjects