OPINION: It’s Not About The Money — Reframing Immigration Discourse

In response to Trump’s latest barrage of xenophobic comments against Haitian and El Salvadoran migrants, many liberals have defended immigrants by citing their contributions to the American economy.

For example, the Economic Policy Institute argued that immigrants contribute over $700 billion to the economy every year. Similarly, a CBS News piece stated that 51 percent of companies valued over $1 billion were founded by an immigrants. In fact, in my first opinions column, I myself made the economic case for immigration: in 2011, immigrants accounted for 28 percent of small business employees.

Eleven point six billion dollars. Fifty-one percent. Twenty-eight percent. It is often almost instinctive to equate immigrants with numbers in an economy. Even immigrants themselves, in their defense against the administration’s racist tirades, have internalized this rhetoric. In the aftermath of Trump’s remarks on “shithole countries,” Haitian and South Sudanese immigrants tweeted their career aspirations and academic credentials:

“I’m a future doctor. … I have 3 degrees. … I’m from a #ShitHole country,” said one.

“I’m a future news editor. … I speak 6 languages. … I’m from a #ShitHole country,” said another.

“I’m a publicist at Buzzfeed. I’m a college graduate. … I’m from a #ShitHole country,” said another.

While these tweets were inspiring displays of self-empowerment, they represented perceived obligation to assert productivity as a means of obtaining legitimacy. We must question the rhetoric of ‘productivity’ that pervades discourse on immigration. In particular, we should reflect on what constitutes productivity, who “productivity” excludes, and who this categorization ultimately benefits.

Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration proposed a “merit-based” immigration system aimed at recruiting “skilled” — or rather, productive — workers into the United States. In particular, Trump singled out Norwegians and “Asians” as ideal candidates. Trump’s comments not only idealized whiteness, but also invoked the model minority myth: the belief that (typically East) Asians are law-abiding and productive citizens, thus situating other racial minorities as the opposite.

In effect, Trump used white and Asian immigrants as a wedge against Black and Latinx communities, where “Asian” is coded as “productive” but “Haitian” and “El Salvadoran” is coded as “shithole.”

In addition to racial hierarchy, socioeconomic class also constructs notions of productivity. For example, the H1B work visa — a status desired by many international students — is granted to college-educated individuals seeking specialized employment in the United States.

While the H1B visa encourages racial diversity in America’s workforce, it privileges middle-to-upper class migrants, like myself, who have had access to secondary and tertiary education in our home countries. Subsequently, H1B visa holders become “productive” workers in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, thus contributing to the United States’ overall gross domestic product.

It is no surprise that purportedly pro-immigration articles only seem to highlight the narratives of “productive” middle-to-upper class immigrants: the founder of a tech startup, the successful doctor, or the owner of a flourishing business chain. The “shithole” narratives of working class immigrants — of those who migrate out of survival, not out of choice — have been duly erased.

The construction of “productivity,” as opposed to “shithole,” is representative of the international division of labor in a globalized economy. The United States’ hegemony is contingent upon the exploitation of cheap labor in the Global South, particularly in countries like Haiti and El Salvador and recruitment of specialized labor in relatively-industrialized countries.

Justifying immigration solely in terms of “productivity” and “economy” reifies migrants’ roles as commodities in global capitalism.

Instead of emphasizing immigration’s monetary benefits, we should focus on migrant experiences — especially those of working class, Black, and/or Latinx backgrounds. If we are to truly advocate for immigrants, we should listen to their motivations behind their decision to leave their home countries, the difficulties they have encountered, and the assistance they need in navigating legal and economic obstacles.

After all, migrants are more than just a $700 billion contribution to the American economy. They are human beings — ones whose worth cannot be defined by a mere price tag.

Jolo Labio PO ’20 is a history major from Manila, Philippines. If you find his ID, please return it to Oldenborg 108. ​

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