The Problem With “The Exceptional Immigrant”

Yesterday, as you may have noticed unless you were living under a rock, the Washington Post revealed that President Trump had referred to various countries as “shitholes”, apparently stating his frustration that people who come from these countries are undeserving of US immigration and any attendant protections.

I think it’s fairly clear why this is wrong, and to cover the years of exploitation, abuse, and overt colonialism that has produced these “shithole” countries would be to rehash a topic that’s being well covered by many more qualified commentators than I (incidentally, the best thread I’ve read on this specifically comes from Jonathan Katz). But one thing I do want to examine closely are the defenses of immigrants from these countries, who the president considers unworthy.

One of the most well circulated stories at the moment has come from many sources, including from Bill Kristol, and was even retweeted by Hillary Clinton (in keeping with the crazy world we live in). You can see it for yourself here, but it attempts to push back on the Trump narrative by bringing up the story of Pvt. Emmanuel Mensah, a Ghanaian immigrant that died rescuing people from a burning apartment building in the Bronx a couple weeks ago. His brave sacrifice, as the narrative would have it, shows how wrong and immoral Donald Trump’s comments were.

In isolation, there’s nothing objectionable about what Kristol said — and this isn’t to diminish Pvt. Mensah’s real bravery at all. But this is also part of a trend, wherein supporters of immigrants or refugees will often uplift exceptional refugees and immigrants throughout history to show that they belong and contribute to the United States. Over the last couple of years, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein have been idolized as such, as was Khizr Khan, after his heartrending speech at the DNC, regarding his son Humayun, who sacrificed his life to save his unit.

The problem with these arguments is that its defense of the exceptional immigrant comes at the expense of merely mediocre or even good one. By the logic of these arguments, basic human dignities and respect can only be extended to the top tier of immigrants; it is no defense of the 99% of immigrants to say that they could be in the top 1%. This is no defense of the Salvadorian accountant who lives a quiet life in the suburbs, nor the Indian college student with a middling GPA. Not every Ghanaian will be like Pvt. Mensah, nor every first generation immigrant like Humayun Khan. Not every child of refugees will grow up to market the newest overpriced phone, and that should be OK. Regardless of their achievements, they deserve to live just as dignified a life as anyone else, free from bigotry, and free from hate. These arguments, by centering the exceptional (often deceased) immigrant, tend to encourage people to defend immigrants in the abstract, as opposed to their neighbors suffering today.

To further illustrate this point, one needs to look no further than the blizzard of pieces on suffering white voters in the Midwest or Appalachia. In all of these pieces, you invariably hear stories about people losing their jobs, losing their home, or losing a loved one to opioids. Yet in the public discourse, no one defends them by saying that they may yet become the next Steve Wozniak or the next Jeff Bezos. It is simply assumed that these are people who deserve empathy or sympathy for being who we are. And that’s the central problem for people of color , and one that is exacerbated by the defense of the exceptional immigrants — we are asked to be the best, while they are asked to simply be human.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge those who have shared the stories referenced here — the stories of people like Einstein and Khan are truly inspirational ones. But if you’re one of them, if you don’t know the stories of the ‘average’ immigrants closer to home, I would urge you to go out learn more. You’ll find people who may not be geniuses nor prodigies, yet still are nonetheless good parents, good friends, decent people who are deserving of basic dignities. Anyone can defend the exceptional, but true acceptance means defending the rest.