“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emblazoned upon the plaque which sits at the foot of Lady Liberty, this extract from a sonnet by Emma Lazarus was an invitation to the world, embodying the beating heart of a self-identifying nation of immigrants. Fast-forward more than a century and Nina Davuluri, a woman born in the city housing the world-famous statue is crowned Miss America, leading to racist backlash from the more geographically and factually-challenged members of the social network community. Framed against the backdrop of the ongoing Immigration reform debate in both chambers of Congress, the bigoted response highlights a more disturbing trend which transcends American politics-an animosity towards immigrants which periodically emerges on our news-feeds.
Within the borders of my South African homeland, xenophobic attacks are not uncommon, coming into the national spotlight as foreign-owned shops are burnt and looted. Impregnated deep within the psyche of many, seems to be the tendency to find a scapegoat-simply because it is easier than confronting the often complex causality or difficult truths behind importunate problems. This same phenomenon is one we see too often, as the blame is shifted to immigrants on issues ranging from inflated crime rates to deflated employment prospects. The attackers house a mentality devoid of empathy, failing to see the reality that immigrants from the rest of the African continent seek refuge here not because they have nefarious plans to harm our country through criminal syndicates, but because the conditions in their own countries have often become unbearable. They look to their adopted country as a burning, undying flame of hope and we betray who we are as human beings, beyond our national identities, if we suffocate that flame.
Irrational scapegoating, in order to be effective, is coupled with a fear-mongering campaign to carve out perceived differences, portraying the immigrant as dangerous and often inferior to the local population. This campaign culminates, in extreme cases, in the establishment of viciously racist far-right parties, such as the Golden Dawn party infamous for their Neo-Nazi presence in Greek politics. By dehumanizing the immigrant, they attempt to convince the populace that their violence and mistreatment is somehow excusable. As problems compound domestically, this idea that the ‘inferior foreigners’ are at the root of problems becomes incredibly dangerous, potentially leading to tragic displays of inhumanity.
Ideologically, there is a certain irony present in anti-immigrant sentiment, especially from those within the United States, stemming from a convoluted understanding of the concept of immigration and its presence in the history of most. Almost all Americans, even the most ardent anti-immigrant members of the Tea Party, are not ancestrally indigenous to the land that is now the United States. They can live and prosper within the US often because their forefathers were given the chance to build a better life there. In reality, most of the human population, if they trace their lineage back far enough, will stumble upon an ancestor who was indeed an immigrant to the land their kindred now occupies. The opportunity they were given is the opportunity we must give to those who house those common hopes and dreams for prosperity.
Furthermore, a distorted perception of privilege exists around the immigrant population. In most instances, immigrants from under-developed countries do not step into executive corporate positions (surprise surprise) or sit dormant waiting for government benefits. They are often willing to do the menial work the local population is not and make considerable contributions to the economy in other sectors as well. By giving these workers citizenship, they can become tax-paying members of the national community and enrich the economy. Moreover, the influx brings an ethnic and cultural diversity, yet a willingness to come together around the ideals upon which a country is built (after all, they must agree with something the country is doing if they are willing to pin their hopes on migrating there).This idea, that immigrants can be an asset to a nation, is one which is seemingly unfathomable to those who contend that their presence does nothing but weigh the rest of the country down.
Therefore, the next time you find yourself on the side of anti-immigrant rhetoric, remember: If the United States had closed their borders to even the most volatile Middle East, a certain Syrian-born man wouldn’t have fallen in love with Joanne Carole Schieble on the field of a Wisconsin Campus and Schieble wouldn’t have subsequently given birth to their son-Steven Paul Jobs.