Jul 19, 2023
Immigration law should "stop punishing innocent young people brought to the country through no fault of their own by their parents," the Obama White House stated in 2013. "Migrant Caravan Continues North, Defying Mexico and U.S.," The New York Times warned in 2018. "Biden Administration Invites Ordinary Americans to Help Settle Refugees," NPR announced in early 2023.
For over a century, U.S. policy and media have distinguished between supposedly different types of immigrants. There are refugees, who are fleeing political persecution, and migrants, who are crossing a border for reasons that aren’t necessarily so noble. There are deserving immigrants, who are upwardly mobile and law-abiding. And there are undeserving immigrants, who are tax-dodging gang members.
It may be easy to take this hierarchy of displaced people for granted, as it’s become so commonplace in U.S. immigration discourse. But there’s nothing natural or organic about it. These distinctions––between, for example, "refugee" and "migrant" –– are historically informed by racism, gendered notions of labor and a superficial, ideological distinction between negative and positive rights. The plight of certain immigrants is instrumentalized and prioritized over others, depending on their proximity to contemporary notions of whiteness, their ability to create cheap labor, and their utility to combating the spread of dangerous leftwing ideologies like anarchism and socialism.
This episode – Part 2 of our three-part series on media narratives about immigration (listen to Part I here!) – examines the U.S. government's pattern of arbitrarily categorizing displaced people as some version of "good" or "bad." We'll look at how these distinctions are informed by, and often obfuscate, the U.S.'s global relations and imperialist expansion, and how the policies behind these categories turn people seeking safety and stability into geopolitical pawns.
Our guest is writer, historian and professor, Dr. Rachel Ida Buff.