The “Valuable” Immigrant

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Immigration has long been a hot-button issue in American politics and has recently reached a fever pitch. Thanks to the openly xenophobic statements and actions of President Donald Trump–including the claim that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, the proposed “Muslim ban” that has significantly curtailed the flow of Muslim immigration and travel to the United States, the termination of DACA that has threatened the safety and livelihood of young undocumented immigrants, and the growing number of arrests and deportations of both legal and undocumented immigrants–the political climate in the United States has become overtly hostile to immigrants. Immigrants are labeled criminals, drug addicts, and drains on society, and they are told that they are not welcome within our borders.

In order to counter Trump’s claim that these anti-immigration policies will “make America great again,” opponents have pointed out the many ways in which first- and second-generation immigrants are often, in fact, the ones who make America great in the first place. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin recently used second-generation immigrant Chloe Kim’s Olympic victory to advocate for the value of immigration. And many others have argued that, if it were not for immigration, we may have never known of inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, Apple founder and tech innovator Steve Jobs, Huffington Post founder and businesswoman Arianna Huffington, or any number of notable first- and second-generation immigrants who have made significant contributions to American society.

Proponents of immigration argue that immigrants, far from acting as a drain on American resources, actually have a positive effect on the American economy. Their presence in the labor market increases the GDP of the United States by 11 percent each year. Immigrants are about twice as likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans, and 43 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Immigrants, as Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “get the job done.” They play a valuable role in making America the prosperous and powerful country that it is today.

However, there is a troubling aspect to this argument. The culture that fuels this “valuable” immigrant trope is largely a byproduct of market based economics. This economic structure emphasizes competition, productivity, and the pursuit of profit. People are incentivized to compete with each other to sell goods at the highest price while keeping costs as low as possible, in order maximize profit for themselves.

Just as the value of goods and services is determined by the market, so too is the value of individuals. In our society people who work jobs that create monetary revenue are considered productive members of society. They are seen as role models, praiseworthy, and “valuable” to society.  Throughout the American collective consciousness, we are repeatedly pummeled with the “rags to riches” story, the motif of the “self-made” man, and the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Consumerist culture links money-making ability to morality and value. And it suggests that those who struggle to make money–those who work minimum wage jobs, those who are unpaid caretakers or homemakers, those who cannot afford an education, those who are disabled or sick, those who are hungry and homeless–have inherently less value.   

And society treats those individuals accordingly. People who struggle to make money are often deprived of basic human rights such as housing, education, and healthcare. 32 million people in the United States do not have health insurance, 83 percent of Americans are unable to pay for college, and over half a million people in the United States are homeless. Under capitalism, basic amenities such as housing, education, and healthcare are at least partially privatized. And no profit-driven private entity would be motivated to provide their product or service for free–unless, of course, it brought them positive publicity.

In this way, poor people are often denied basic human rights simply because they cannot afford them. Our society then justifies this inhumane treatment, spouting myths about equality of opportunity and level playing fields, and deriding poor people as lazy and immoral. Research, however, has indicated that poverty is caused by structural factors rather than individual behavior. Despite the numerous studies suggesting that economic mobility has become virtually impossible and that 70 percent of Americans born in low-income households will remain in the low-income bracket for the rest of their lives, the false equivalency of wealth and morality persists in our cultural discourse.

The “valuable” immigrant archetype, therefore, only serves to reinforce this toxic myth. By drawing attention to immigrants like Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, and Arianna Huffington as examples of why we must support immigration, people implicitly suggest that only immigrants who create substantive monetary revenue for the United States are valuable and deserving of entry.

But the reality is that not every first- or second-generation immigrant is an entrepreneur, scientist, or engineer–nor should we expect them to be. Many immigrants and refugees, particularly those fleeing war-torn areas, are elderly, disabled, malnourished, uneducated, or otherwise lacking in the competitive skills that would allow them to make significant contributions to the U.S. economy.

Should we turn away an elderly Syrian refugee because he lacks the skills to outperform American citizens in the job market? Should we deport his family when his children fail to successfully launch a billion-dollar company from their bedrooms? Or do we accept immigrants into our country because they are human beings with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

These questions are difficult because they expand the already-heated debate over immigration to an even greater conversation about the underlying economic system of the United States. By challenging the idea that immigrants must be economically “valuable” in order to stay in the United States, we open the door to a fundamental assault on the capitalist ethos that underpins so much of our society. We begin to question the notion that any individual, immigrant or non-immigrant, must make money in order to enjoy basic human rights such as healthcare, housing, and freedom from deportation.

We must fight for immigrant rights because immigrant rights are human rights. Nobody deserves to be deported, denied entry to the United States, or deprived of food, shelter, and healthcare simply because they don't make enough money. Let's move away from defining an individual's value based on their contributions to the economy and instead embrace the idea that every individual is inherently valuable.


Nian Hu (@nian_hu) is a recent Harvard graduate who wrote a widely-read feminist column in The Harvard Crimson. Currently she is a New York-based editorial intern writing about travel and food at INSIDER. Read more of her writing here