This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Being Hostile to Immigrants Has Everything To Do With Race and Class

I’ve spent more than two decades living in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, and I am a naturalized US citizen. As a result, I think I know pretty well what the word “immigrant” means.

There are quite a few British people living in New York City (to the point where there was an effort last year, albeit unsuccessful, to designate a certain Manhattan neighborhood as “Little Britain”). Many of them are, legally speaking, resident aliens. Some of them are even (again, legally speaking) illegal aliens. And yet, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who refers to Brits as “immigrants”. Instead, they are known as “expatriates” or “expats”.

People who come from the northwestern portion of the European continent generally aren’t called “immigrants” either (except in a historic sense). Instead, we refer to them as “émigrés”.

Things get a bit complicated with transplants from Southern and Eastern Europe. (And by the way: “transplant” is another word we use when we don’t want to say “immigrant”.) Their characterization depends on socio-economic background. Taxi drivers, tradesmen and other people in blue-collar occupations are “immigrants”. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and college professors are “émigrés”.

Arrivals who are black, Desi, Irish or Amerindian are “immigrants” regardless of socio-economic background. So are people from anywhere in Latin America, even if they are white. Unless, of course, they are Cuban — in which case they are “exiles”.

Puerto-Ricans are called “immigrants”, even though they are U.S. citizens by birth.

White South Africans are not “immigrants”. Black South Africans are.

With those who escape totalitarian regimes, things once again get tricky. Those who escape for economic reasons are “immigrants”. Those who escape for political reason are “exiles” or “émigrés”.

And so, as far as I am concerned, it is undeniable that the word “immigrant” — besides meaning “a resident of the United States who was born elsewhere” — also connotes the following:

(1) likely not white;
(2) from a much poorer country or U.S. territory, at least historically;
(3) likely working in a blue-collar job, either because of a lack of education, or because of wide-spread prejudice;
(4) left his or her country for lowly economic reasons, rather than lofty ideological ones.

I will leave you with a story of two foreigners recently arrested under Alabama’s harsh immigration law.

One was a German Mercedes-Benz executive, on a visit to his company’s plant in Tuscaloosa. The police pulled him over for not having a tag on his rental car and slapped the cuffs on when he failed to produce any identification other than a German ID card. Notice, this man was driving without a license. After his associate retrieved his documents, however, he was released the same day.

The second foreigner was arrested less than a month later in Leeds. Like the German guy, he was a car company executive. Unlike the German guy, however, the company he worked for was Honda, and he was Japanese. Despite showing the officer his international driver’s license, a valid passport and a U.S. work permit, he was arrested and hauled off to jail — and spent three days there while his status was being “verified”. And, he was ticketed. Of course, all this had nothing whatsoever to do with his race. Come on, folks, it’s Alabama. It would be completely insane to even think race was a factor in how differently these two men were treated.

I would submit, however, that although neither of these men were immigrants, one of them was nevertheless an “immigrant”. As the good folks on Fox News like to say, YOU decide.

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3 thoughts on “Being Hostile to Immigrants Has Everything To Do With Race and Class

  1. Unfortunately, you are correct in this analysis. The best thing we can do is rise above the bigotry and treat everyone as equal.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on immigration. I currently live in Pittsburgh and have recently started working for an immigration law clinic. I am continually amazed by the stories I hear, the treatment I have seen and the feelings I have heard expressed. If we are ever to advance as a society, we will all need to learn how to accept each other and treat each other how we wish we were treated regardless of our race.

  3. So true. I often feel racism is over. We elected an African-American president. My children’s classes are filled with kids representing a rainbow of diversity. But your story and a recent situation at my daughter’s school (for which I believe she may be the target of anti-Semitism), have got me thinking that perhaps all is not as rosy as I had thought or as I hope it would be.

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