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Your Voice: Stop preaching the heroic immigrant narrative

Your Voice: Stop preaching the heroic immigrant narrative
Supporters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA chant slogans and carry signs while joining a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles, Monday, Sept. 4, 2017. (Richard Vogel / AP)
I have family members who are immigrants from Mexico, Croatia and Canada.

A good friend of mine came to the United States from Mexico as a child, and has since graduated from a top public university.

The experiences of these individuals have something in common: they are immigrants who have done nothing extraordinary or heroic. They are immigrants who have merely worked, gotten an education, participated in their communities and raised families.

It's that exact narrative of the heroic or extraordinary immigrant. Those immigrants that deserve respect or legal status because of some titanic achievement, are abundant in our society and often featured in the media. Because just being an immigrant and succeeding is heroic.

In recent months, there have been a series of TV ads by Mexican beer Modelo highlighting the idea of the 'role model immigrant.' One ad features a first-generation Mexican-American, Eddie Jimenez, a helicopter rescue pilot who received a medal for his heroism.

This ad is part of a broader pro-immigrant advertising campaign by Modelo featuring stories of immigrants who, some would say, deserve to be in this country.

We saw this narrative play out overseas in France when a Malian immigrant scaled a building to rescue a young boy in Paris. For this brave action, he was promised French citizenship.

But in a country now dominated by policies of family separation, families that may never be reunited and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aggressively deports thousands, this narrative of who immigrants are, is inadequate.

When people, especially those who advocate for immigrants and refugees, fall into preaching the heroic immigrant narrative; it's certainly understandable why they do so.

Because it seems completely natural to go out of your way to extol the virtues and incredible individual achievements of immigrants and refugees when the president of the United States refers to them as individuals “infesting” the country —a hallmark of white supremacist language.

So pointing out that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens and that refugees contribute billions of dollars to the economy is no longer enough.

It's time to break through the confines of the heroic immigrant narrative to effectively counter Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda and to advocate for a positive vision of immigration values.

Trump and his allies, unlike some Republicans of the past, no longer distinguish between good and bad immigrants, and even between legal and undocumented immigrants.

The administration’s hostile immigration agenda is now targeting legal immigration, in particular ending the so-called “chain migration” or immigration based on family reunification. They have also proposed ending the Visa lottery program, and have restricted H1B1 visas for high-skilled workers.

With an administration and a political party committed to a major reduction of legal immigration, it is unwise to expect the heroic immigrant trope to change the minds of any Trump supporters on immigration policy —not that doing so would have been fruitful anyway.

Former President Barack Obama was keen on making distinctions between the good, hard-working and law-abiding immigrants and the law-breaking immigrants, distinguishing between high-skilled and low-skilled.

These distinctions formed the basis of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which protected “good” immigrants brought here as children but kept millions of other undocumented immigrants in the shadows.

While he certainly had a more positive rhetoric toward immigration and a less cruel immigration policy on its face than Trump, Obama nonetheless presided over a record number of deportations, the creation of immigrant detention centers, and further militarization of the US-Mexico border.

The past administration set the precedent for what the current administration has only made worse. The Obama administration and other Democrats have failed to fully articulate a positive, enduring vision of immigration —a vision that rejected the ideal immigrant narrative.

In this moment, pro-immigration and pro-immigrant supporters must constantly push for a vision that advocates for the respect and dignity of all immigrants, regardless of skill or ability.

Doing so will involve no longer ranking immigrants based on the value they bring to the economy. High-skilled immigrants working in Silicon Valley tech companies are not inherently better immigrants than “low-skilled” migrant workers picking strawberries.

Stories of immigrants getting accepted into Ivy League schools and launching successful startups should not be considered more inspiring than immigrants who work minimum wage jobs and battle against economic insecurity.

Many migrants and refugees coming to the US, fleeing extreme poverty and crime in Central America or war zones in the Middle East and Africa, are likely not going to get rich or become the CEO of Uber.

Endlessly pushing the narrative that the United States should accept high-skilled immigrants first and everyone else a distant second will just embolden anti-immigrant voices that argue that desperate migrants and refugees will be a drag on the system and cannot be welcomed.

I often think about the plight of undocumented immigrants with disabilities and how many face deportation and being turned away at the border simply because immigration officials assume that they can’t contribute to society and the economy.

Amidst the constant dehumanization and degradation of immigrants and refugees, a moral framework that emphasizes the humanity of immigrants and immigrant communities is needed most.

Let’s celebrate the immigrant who becomes an astronaut or serves in the military as well as those who pick vegetables, clean hotel rooms, or work in restaurants and factories.

Daniel Escalona, of Oak Park, is a writer and a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a master's degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77

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