2017 So Far: Immigration and the Myth of the Perfect Refugee

Dear 2017: WTF. You were supposed to be different. I had high hopes for you. It’s only been 30 days and you’re failing. And don’t even get me started about the last few months.

I mean, seriously. After the political Armageddon that was 2016, there was a collective hope you would bring back civility, dignity, and sanity. Nope. You got us off to a rocky start since day one. Remember that lovely passive aggressive New Year’s Day tweet from our PEOTUS? Then, in January you added #peegate, #alternativefacts, and #nobannowall to our vocabulary. Not to mention a freak show of an inauguration. February also brings us more ridiculousness. Thanks for that. Now please get it together.

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few days about the first month of 2017 and how to make sense of what has happened and what’s to come.  I’m a card carrying rhetorician (yes, that’s a thing) and a cultural studies professor, so I look closely at how people talk and what they talk about for a living. And how people talk matters. So it makes sense that I pay attention to what kind of stories are out there bopping around the news cycle and how they are discussed . I’m noticing that the way people joke about #peegate and #pussygate, and the way people use #nobannowall has a lot to say about what lives matter and what lives don’t.

So let’s start with #peegate. This story broke in January . According to Buzzfeed, the Kremlin might have kompromat on Trump, and oh by the way, it may involve Russian prostitutes, and, surprise, we’ll toss in some golden showers on a poor unsuspecting mattress just for fun. You can’t make this up.

Of course, we don’t know if this actually happened and until someone shows me some solid evidence, I’m not assuming anything. But, #peegate is important, and not just as an SNL sketch. Unfortunately, #peegate, however salacious it may be, was the subject of some time sensitive think-pieces. But it was all focused on Trump and Putin. Unfortunately, that’s what patriarchy does. While we’re all talking about Putin and Trump, spinning grand narratives about their (slightly uncomfortable) bromance, political agendas, and sexual weaknesses, we miss an opportunity to have a serious conversation about sex trafficking and consent.

Regardless if they exist in reality or only between the pages of an intel brief, these women represent countless sex workers that spend their lives serving the powers that be at great expense. For the most part, no one cared who they were or what their quality of life was. There were no human rights protests or public figures openly questioning what level of consent they may or may not have had had. Had they not been prostitutes and instead been scientists or doctors, the concern for their safety would have been very different. Unfortunately for them, they’re just prostitutes and deserving of little else than a hashtag.  Which brings us to the politics of the January immigration protests that gave us #muslimban and #nobannowall.

A ban on refugees is unamerican. Not surprisingly, it’s something that causes massive protests in major cities all over the country, complete with speeches from Elizabeth Warren and tears from Chuck Schumer. People all over the world are really upset that the administration did this, and rightly so. As a strategy to counter the administration’s rhetoric of exclusion, protesters have fought back by telling immigrant stories highlighting the extraordinary work that they do while in the U.S. From the Harvard scientist working on a cure for cancer to the engineer designing new products in silicon valley, these people are more than good citizens, they are pretty much the definition of perfection. The unintended consequence is that sympathy for those who need it most is directly dependent on weather or not they are coded as perfect. Intentional or not, there is a damaging rhetoric of meritocracy that’s circulating that co-opts the rhetoric of good citizenship.

This is troubling for a few reasons:

1. There is no perfect citizen and an immigrant need not be perfect in order for the American collective to give a damn about him/her.

2. It feminizes and infantilizes refugees. Words like innocent, adorable, and brilliant marks them as nonthreatening and safe. A person should not have to look a certain way or make you feel a certain way to be treated with kindness.

3. It erases those who are imperfect and ordinary out of the narrative and codes them as unsafe, guilty, and by extension, unfit for citizenship.

4. It gives even the most progressive and well intentioned people language that prioritizes some lives over others, creating criteria of good and bad citizens. 5. It creates conditions where being labeled good citizen vs a bad citizen literally means the difference between life or death.

This past week, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been inundated with stories of extraordinary people who will no longer be able to do amazing things in this country because they are no longer welcome and no longer fit for potential citizenship. I read about the brilliant Iranian scientist who won’t be able to conduct research at Harvard, the innocent mother whose child was detained at the airport for hours without food, and the hard working graduate student who will no longer be able to complete year’s worth of hard work towards a master’s degree. All of these stories are heartbreaking and I am not doubting their validity, but what is troubling here is that it seems that those most worthy of protesters’ time are these perfect, amazing, extraordinary people. It is not enough that they are simply human. They must be 1000 times smarter, more productive or hard-working than your average American citizen for anyone to care whether they are worthy of staying within our borders. In short, what we are seeing circulate here is a rhetoric of meritocracy that implicitly says “good” immigrants must be respectable, extraordinary, innocent, brilliant, and, in many cases, helpless.

This discourse is important but the myth of the perfect refugee overall does some dangerous political work. While raising awareness about the atrocities of a Muslim ban, it also feminizes refugees and transfers power and agency back to the protesters. The protesters, by virtue of what stories they choose to tell, are in the powerful position of deciding who is worthy of their anger and their assistance.

Now, let’s jump back to #peegate and the Russian prostitutes. They are not seen as respectful or they innocent. I think we can safely assume that they are not working on studies to cure cancer at Harvard but does that mean they should be less worthy of attention? As self-proclaimed feminists we have a responsibility and should remind ourselves — especially those who work in media or have access to a public platform — that both Russian prostitutes and the refugees that have dominated public consciousness are both subject to the whims of powerful institutions and powerful men. And that is not ok.

While refugees and immigrants must be characterized as “good” citizens in order to be worthy of assistance, the Russian prostitutes, by virtue of their profession, will always already be excluded from the good citizen narrative. Although we cannot be certain, there is a lot to suggest that the Russian sex workers in question were more victims than entrepreneurs. While they might have had some level of consent, I’m going to assume their level of agency is fairly low. And if you disagree, feel free to trade places with a Russian sex worker who works for the Russian government for 12 hours. Go ahead, see how free you feel. I’m sure you’ll love it. #eyeroll

The thing about patriarchy is that it perpetuates telling stories through a male gaze, so we’ll never really get the answers about who these women were or what kind of life they have. Most of the time, we don’t care enough to ask. In the state’s eyes they don’t exist. Like immigrants and refugees, their identity is literally unconstituted until other people, whether it be journalists or bureaucrats, acknowledge them first.

2017, however, and all that it has brought with it, has afforded us a moment where we can break from telling stories through the male gaze. This is a moment where we can think critically about our assumptions of power.

So what do we do? Well, if you’re reading this and are a member of the media, you can start by using your privilege to write and produce stories that re-center women and take a critical look at the international sex economy and the structures that govern it. You can also stop perpetuating the myth of the perfect refugee by changing the language you use to describe them. If you’re just a regular person, you can speak up when you hear something and remind others that there is more at stake here than posting golden shower memes and extraordinary immigrant stories on Facebook. You have a voice and in 2017, you can use it. Even the smallest gestures can collectively have a big impact.

Sex workers, whether they work in the U.S. or Russia are important, not because they can compromise the President of the United States, but because they are human. Immigrants, whether they contribute to curing cancer or not, are important because they are human. Unless something changes, 2017 will continue to fail them and their humanity will continue to be eclipsed as they are reduced to strategic tools used to influence the powerful. 2017, you have 11 months left: We can do better.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Cultural Studies and Political Rhetoric Professor, Public Affairs Ninja, Champagne and Unicorn Enthusiast, Rescue Pup FurMom.

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