Immigrants are #MoreThanALabel

About a week ago, I was asked to participate in the #MoreThanALabel campaign, an effort by the MSW Program at Simmons College to promote positive immigrant-related discourse in the United States.

It’s not mystery that this is something dear to my heart, both intellectually and personally. It’s what I care about as a professor, through work that focuses on the history of Latin American-descent migrants and their descendants. It’s what I care about as a Chicano, as the member of a family and larger community that is both immigrant and native-born. And it’s what I care about as a person, as a human being who sees the unnecessary suffering of people as they make terribly difficult decisions to migrate and, ultimately, take up the struggle of creating lives in new often hostile places.

For those in the United States who care about immigrants––especially those who are part of the majority (white, native-born) society––there is work to be done.  If we really care about doing something to combat the labels and stigmas that affect the lives of immigrants in our country, we have to start by looking in the mirror.

We need to check our fears and assumptions. We need to open ourselves to learning about the diversity of immigrant experiences.  We need to promote the creation of new immigration systems that are designed to meet 21st century challenges.  And we need to forcefully and affirmatively commit ourselves to the social value of humanism.

Being a humanist in the 21st century means learning about the world. It means grappling with the complexity of things like capitalism and neoliberalism, systems that link much of us together in ways that are powerful and, often, invisible to our understanding. It means being empathic, extending ourselves to understand the lives, the desires, the struggles of others, even when those are nearly impossible to fully understand.

It also means changing how we think about the nation that is the United States.

There is no a person in the United States today who is not benefiting from the work of immigrants.  Not one of us will go the day without eating something that is planted, picked, packed, or processed by a Spanish-speaking migrant.  And that’s just one, life-giving form of work.  The work immigrants is so diverse that it relates to each of our lives in countless different ways, each day.  The common link of all this labor is simple: The United States does not survive without immigrant labor.

That is a good starting point, but its not a very humanistic one.  We’re not going to combat the racism and xenophobia making immigrant lives so difficult by shouting “We need them for cheap labor so we can benefit from them!”

What we need to do is to learn about these relationships between our own lives and the lives of immigrants.  We need to think about the ethics and morality that come with them. Is it right to benefit from the suffering of others?  Is it right to support a system that labels some “acceptable” and others “illegal”?  And finally we need to find a way to humanistically “flip” the power imbalance that makes migration such an oppressive system in our present.

We do that by accepting that global migrants deserve the same inalienable rights as do all other human beings in the world.  We do that by making sure our political systems nurture and protect those rights.

And we do it by living our own, individual and personal lives in ways that show it.

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