Obama, Clinton should not give cover to anti-immigrant right-wingers

opinion

As the Trump administration threatens to inflict new horrors on asylum-seekers and anti-immigrant hysteria fuels terrifying far right movements around the world, you might be wondering how our most prominent progressive icons plan to provide moral leadership in this crisis.

Former president Barack Obama is apparently grappling with the alarming epidemic of … immigrants not speaking the language of their adopted countries.

“It’s not racist to say that, ‘Ah, if you’re going to be here, then you should learn the language of the country that you just arrived at,’” he said at a town hall in Berlin this month, speaking to the importance of a “coherent, cohesive” society. “We can’t label everybody who is disturbed by immigration racist.”

Never mind that “speak English!” has long been the scold of assorted xenophobes and their pals. It’s been a particular preoccupation, for instance, of Iowa Rep. Steve King. Obama joins a long line of eminently reasonable politicians making extremely reasonable concessions to the grievances of right-wing populists and their constituents, in their most reasonable indoor voices.

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Note, I have not called the right-wingers or their fans racists. Where is my prize?

Obama was not alone in admonishing Europe. Hillary Clinton told the continent in November to “get a handle” on immigration and to stop providing “refuge and support” to the fleeing victims of war, lest it continue to “roil the body politic.” Other pundits have spilled untold gallons of ink making the case that although snatching toddlers from their parents is definitely a bridge too far, we should all be having a sober conversation on how many and what kind of immigrants we allow in the United States (the answer always seems to land on fewer and richer, and let’s get real, probably whiter). To topple the blood-and-soil types politically, in other words, we have to understand the source of their discomfort, maybe even give them some of what they want. 

Immigration laws have a dark history

All this reasonable discourse is a willful misreading of our history. Every time this country has used concerns about societal “cohesion” to tighten the spigot on immigration, it’s been undergirded by racist hostility. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act spun animosity toward Chinese laborers — a whopping 0.002% of the national population at the time, mostly concentrated on the West Coast — into an all-out ban. The immigration law of 1924 created a quota system intended to keep out all Asian immigrants as well as most Southern and Eastern Europeans.

Even the current crisis at the border is rooted in a dark history. Coleman Livingston Blease, an unrepentant white supremacist senator from South Carolina, teamed up with James Davis, the then-Labor Secretary who dabbled in eugenics, to criminalize the act of illegally crossing border in 1929, in order to control the flow of Mexican workers into the U.S. once harvest season was over. The statute stills stands today and funnels tens of thousands of immigrants into detention every year.

In defense of these policies, restrictionists have tended to defend themselves by saying that they are actually big fans of immigration, just the “good” kind. They are all for those immigrants who are willing to “cohere.”

Speak impeccable English? Good. Are you some shade of brown? Probably bad. Turn yourself in at a port of entry? High marks until recently, but now, who knows?

My family and I, we would probably qualify as good-ish immigrants.

We waited our turn but some can’t

In 1983, my uncle, a medical resident in Baltimore, petitioned for visas for my newlywed parents in Bangladesh. Every month, they stopped by the U.S. Embassy in Baridhara, a tiny, lush neighborhood in the capital city, to check a board that showed how far they had ticked up in the endless immigration queue. It took 10 years for their number to be called.

We waited for “our turn.” Good. But we’re Muslims. Bad. Highly-skilled? Sure, if you count the dark arts of making chicken curry for 50 people in a pinch or keeping tulips alive in the Texas heat. High-earning? Definitely not. I do pay taxes (good) but I earn the money by being part of the ungrateful, ultraliberal New York media establishment (enough said). And about that impeccable English? Well, my parents have been in this country for 26 years and I’m still coaching them on how to say Beyoncé.

It’s a maddening game whose rules change based on the resentment-du-jour, and one that’s impossible to win.

Most people who uproot their lives to come to the United States are doing so for their livelihoods and their survival, whether that means undertaking a perilous journey through the desert on foot or having the luxury to wait for a visa; whether they take to their new countries immediately or they need a beat to adjust. In a time when the most vulnerable migrants are under attack, I wish that our well-meaning allies would spend a little more time empathizing with them instead of giving cover to people who seek to root them out.

Naureen Khan, who came to the United States from Bangladesh at age 5, is the senior researcher for TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Follow her on Twitter: @naureeninnyc

 

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