The Danger of Using ‘Model Minority’ Narratives in the Aftermath of Trump’s Immigration Orders

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Image via Masha George

By Emily Jenab, MA

Hundreds of demonstrations and protests have taken place across the country in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order which targeted immigrants in the reevaluation of visa and refugee programs, otherwise known as the “Muslim Ban.” While the intention of the protests was to reflect America’s inclusivity, the tactics and media coverage of the protests revealed exclusionary ideas. The fixation on cases of immigrants with superseding academic credentials and contributions to America has a purpose, perhaps, but as we protest Trump’s baseless policies, it’s worth considering the value of all immigrants rather than only those who are believed to have greater status or worth based on these qualifications.

The model minority typically describes Asian Americans or Asian immigrants, who are highly educated and successful; those who, in essence, embody the American dream. Our cultural climate allows for the simultaneous disrespect and idolization of these minorities. Members of minorities who fit our standards of meritocracy and success are deemed the “good immigrants” while the others are ignored. Just as meritocracy and wealth define opportunity and status, our conception of immigrants, too, is tinted by our fixation on measurable successes. In the new tumult and chaos of our national politics, the model minority has been transposed to other migrants, particularly those who are Muslim or from majority Muslim countries, in order to combat the poisonous view of immigrants that has been presented.

When Trump signed his first “Muslim Ban” he targeted the immigrants (many of them legal and green card holders) of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. Immediately, I was struck by my personal connection to his illogical order. Had this ban been written 40 years ago, I wouldn’t be alive. My father, an Iranian immigrant, was lucky enough to leave Iran in the midst of war, and eventually earn a B.S., M.S., Ph.D., and, perhaps most importantly, his citizenship. Trump’s executive order was met with consistent protests and thousands of social media posts detailing the brilliant and qualified minds that would now be debarred from our entering country. Over the course of a few days, sources like The New York Times and The Atlantic began covering the Ph.D. students and qualified scientists now unable to return to the U.S. These narratives, and that of my father and my family, serve to undercut the dichotomous images of danger Trump presents; that immigrants are rapists or terrorists, and rarely, “good people.”

But these narratives are incomplete. The outpouring of support for the Ph.D. students and researchers must be matched by protests that maintain the dignity of all immigrants, even those who do not fall into our conceptions of meritocracy and academic success.

The dignity of work is often stressed as a tenet of Catholic Social Thought. It’s worth considering particularly in Trump’s America. During my time as a volunteer in Costa Rica, I was reminded that dignity persists through all walks of life. The most menial of tasks are valuable and working provides a great purpose regardless of its capacity to earn money or create innovations. Later, as a legal researcher, I supplemented my experience with discussions of ethics morality and saw how work was valued within many major religions. In Islam, the prophet Muhammad’s personal labor is mentioned, as is the respect he treats each worker; within the New Testament, Luke 3:10-14 states “Practice integrity in your work.” Additionally, Martin Luther King referenced dignity in work too, in a speech given at the New Covenant Baptist Church, in Chicago, Illinois, in April of 1967, saying: “If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted…He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”

If the immigrants most affected by the ban drove taxis or swept floors, would that change the narrative of protests and of the media? If the immigrants who are anxiously awaiting decisions on their future in the United States cooked fast food for a living or worked hard labor or construction – would we focus on their ambitions, rights and personhood? Is their success a qualifier for our cultural empathy and respect?

I fear that the immigrants who work in menial labor fields, who perhaps don’t contribute to what many Americans consider “great” in terms of production or valuable research will be forgotten about. I fear that the dignity of all immigrants and our connections regardless of success will be lost amidst the narratives we have created. I think of my father, in this regard, and how much he’s accomplished, but then I also think about the families of all immigrants and those in deportation centers or detained at airports – they are all deserving of our empathy and understanding, and all deserving of having their stories told.

Emily Jenab graduated from Fordham University’s Master’s in Ethics and Society program in 2016. She is currently Research Assistant at Fordham Law School and a Research, Partnerships and Communications Intern, The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Emily will be attending law school this fall.

Rimah Jaber, MA, Senior Editor of Ethics and Society blog

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