Refugees Over Riches

We shouldn’t value immigrants based solely on whether they can offer commercial or scientific utility.

By Sophie Downes

On Monday morning, University President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier sent an e-mail to the University community sharing a letter they had sent to President Donald Trump in reaction to Friday’s executive order halting the flow of Syrian refugees and citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries into the United States.

The letter followed shortly after a pair of e-mails sent from administrators to the entire campus over the weekend, which did not explicitly condemn the executive order but sought to “reaffirm, in the strongest terms,” the University’s commitment to international students, faculty, and staff and to all members of the community regardless of immigration status.

While the administration deserves credit for its swift response to this stunningly reprehensible action from the White House, the tone of the letter reflects a worrying trend in the immigration debate that should give pause to all Americans, not just University officials.

Zimmer and Diermeier make a troubling concession regarding the President’s intent in issuing the order. When they write, “We understand that the motivation for recent actions concerning immigration has been a concern for national security and the threat of terrorism,” they seem to be taking the order’s title—“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”— at face value, when in fact the president’s action is based in fear and bigotry.

But that is not the main problem with the language of the letter. The administration’s argument seems to be outlined in the first paragraph: “A failure to maintain this [welcoming] position [on immigration] will ultimately weaken the nation’s world-leading higher education institutions, diminish the innovation energy in the country, slow the pace of technology development, and ultimately weaken the nation.”

This kind of statement perpetuates an attitude, common even among liberals who claim to be pro-immigrant (including the Obama administration), that prioritizes what Zimmer and Diermeier called in their January 29 e-mail “the flow of talented scholars and students” while implicitly disregarding other groups that are affected by the order and by other anti-immigrant policies—notably refugees and any immigrants who are not highly skilled and are not studying or doing research in the United States.

It makes sense, of course, that the University would focus its response on students and scholars and on the potential impact on higher education institutions. Researchers and university officials across the country, including the Association of American Universities, have expressed concerns over how the executive order will affect recruitment of students in the sciences and pose travel problems for foreign-born scientists; many institutions depend heavily on a flow of researchers from other countries. And it’s true that scientists, entrepreneurs, and other skilled and educated workers who seek opportunities in the U.S. are extremely valuable to the nation’s economy and global standing, and we should continue to facilitate and encourage their immigration.

But what about the immigrants who aren’t bound for Silicon Valley? What about a child from Syria who wants to become an elementary school teacher, not an engineer? Or a retired grandmother from Iran? Or parents with green cards who work as landscapers, domestic workers, and taxi drivers and cannot bring their children to visit their relatives for fear of being prevented from re-entering the country? Are they somehow less worthy of our support?

To phrase the importance of welcoming immigrants solely in terms of their potential contributions to science and technology is to base the value of immigrants on their utility rather than their humanity. It ignores some of the most vulnerable targets of Trump’s fearmongering and xenophobia, and it insults the principles of openness on which this country was built.

We must change the narrative surrounding immigration, and expand our understanding of why anti-immigrant policies are harmful and anti-American. Our vision of the ideal immigrant shouldn’t be limited to the kind of person who will make us look good. It should include people who aren’t coming here to found tech start-ups or do cancer research, but simply to seek a better life.

Sophie Downes is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English and is head copy editor.