Opinion: What being a white outsider taught me about America’s immigration bias

We left on a whim. “A new job,” my father repeated. I had never been to America, or whatever they called it. “Global superpower, land of the free,”— all big phrases that I didn’t understand. The one that struck me the most, however, was “melting pot.” I’d like that — to be a part of…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/bridgetdeirdre/" target="_self">Bridget Phillips</a>

Bridget Phillips

October 7, 2020

We left on a whim. “A new job,” my father repeated. I had never been to America, or whatever they called it. “Global superpower, land of the free,”— all big phrases that I didn’t understand.

The one that struck me the most, however, was “melting pot.” I’d like that — to be a part of a melting pot, I thought.

I remember our first steps out of LAX. The breeze was abnormally light. While Ontario’s summer was hot and heavy, California’s was quiet, warm. We caught a taxi to our new residence. I can recount the exact feeling of that mattress on my back. I felt comfortable; safe in the house that would soon become our home.

For many years, it seemed as though my experience was similar to that of the many other individuals who had immigrated to America (what’s a melting pot without its melties?). However, on the evening of November 7, 2016, something deep within me shifted.

Donald Trump’s words, his actions, baffled me. But nothing was so shocking — so mind-boggling — as his treatment of immigrants to our southern border and from the Middle East.

During a speech in 2017, he told police and ICE officials detaining illegal immigrants and families: “Please don’t be too nice.”

More recently, Trump signed an executive order which, according to the Center for Migration Studies, calls for the “expanded use of detention, limits on access to asylum [and] advanced law enforcement on the U.S-Mexico border,” despite pressure from various human rights groups.

In Canada, I’d never witnessed such blatant discrimination from a political leader. However, the history of America’s turbulent relationship with immigration does not begin with Trump. If anything, our current president exposes the mere surface of a long history of xenophobia in the United States. My experience certainly proves that.

When I first entered America, I was accepted, even applauded, as a middle-class, white immigrant. Sure, I was an outsider, but unless you consider offensive a person making fun of how you say the word “sorry,” I never experienced discrimination of any kind. Not from my community and certainly not from the government.

This is when I began to notice a double-standard.

Social and economic unrest in Latin America has served as groundless evidence for racist attacks on immigrants. A narrow minority of fundamentalist terrorists has ignited xenophobia towards the Muslim community. American patriotism seems to have become associated with extreme nationalism.

What about the overwhelming evidence that working-class migrants benefit our economy?  Or the sheer ignorance that thousands of Nazi immigrants were “rewarded” with life in the U.S following World War II?

According to the United States, the ideal immigrant is white and at least, middle class.

Tales of ambitious white immigrants are often exemplified in our society. As early as second grade, my curriculum covered the myth of the heroic Christopher Columbus. It was only during my freshman year of high school, in a tragically new textbook, that I discovered who he truly was: a brutal colonizer.

Frankly, our educational system seems to have idealized the so-called valiant European settler and ignored the actual achievements of immigrants of color.

Although this cultural supremacy has persisted, the federal initiative has played an even greater role in this shunning of non-white migrants. Take the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s for example.

During the Great Depression, Mexican migrants and American citizens of Mexican descent were blamed for the vast economic troubles. Many held the belief that jobs should be reserved for “true Americans” (AKA: whites). The Mexican Repatriation (as it was euphemistically titled in the 20th century), federal and local government, as well as private organizations, called for the deportation of over 1 million Mexicans — with around 60% being U.S citizens, according to NPR. Admittedly, the warped idea that the white immigrant is more deserving than the immigrant of color is ingrained in the American psyche.

And the story doesn’t end there.

During the mid-20th century, the United States was experiencing severe shortages in cheap labor. To overcome this, an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico ensued.

The Truman administration’s Bracero Program granted low-paying labor contracts to millions of impoverished Mexican immigrants between 1942 and 1964. Their working and living conditions were notoriously poor.

Vernon Briggs, a professor of labor at Cornell University, states that the workers’ wages were often left unmet by their employers. Following its termination, it was clear that the Bracero program considered laborers’ usefulness; not humanity.

Whilst that specific program is not enforced anymore, migrant workers are still exploited by the American economy. According to the Pew Research Center, there are over 10 million undocumented immigrants in this country, many being non-white.

But we tend to villainize that statistic. Today, about 60% of agricultural laborers are undocumented immigrants. The abuse of undocumented, poor and non-white individuals in the name of western economic gain has proven to be a tumor in American culture. While we welcome the work of the poor and undocumented, we reject actual immigrants of color.

My family came to the United States with a dream. A new home, a well-paying job, greater opportunity.

Perhaps my first night in the United States wasn’t the same as another’s. Maybe they weren’t greeted by that same warmth when they arrived or that acute awareness of safety didn’t exist for them. But I’m positive that we’re very much alike.

We all want stability, we all want better lives for our children and our children’s children. And yet, while my own American dreams have been met with assurance, those of poor or non-white immigrants’ have been met with resistance.

This situation is no coincidence. It is the result of an economy that manipulates migrants, an educational system that’s idealized whiteness. And frankly, it’s the weaponization of prejudice from our current administration and many preceding.

I remember feeling shocked when I learned about all this. Don’t get me wrong: immigration today is just as politicized in Canada as it is in the United States, mainly due to the recent Syrian refugee crisis.

But the Canadian government has been known for its’ equitable immigration policy — all the while avoiding a populist revolution. During the time of slavery, my home country accepted those fleeing the cruelty of the United States. Although many faced discrimination, slavery was never legal in Canada. Not to mention that the country’s Conservative party is historically supportive of free-trade and multiculturalism.

It’s unclear to me whether the United States’ complicated relationship with immigration will be resolved. However, if my privilege as a white immigrant has taught me anything, it’s that we live in a potentially explosive society, one that has both celebrated immigrants and mistreated them.

During these trying times, I recount the days of my childhood. I hear my 6-year old self ask about the melting pot. That renowned multicultural stew. The color is ever-changing, I tell her. It sizzles. Sometimes, it explodes in a heaping mess. But it’s ours. And although it’s a complex flavor — one that, for some, is hard to swallow — it’s beautiful.

It’s America.

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