Louis Lainé is the Director of the Vox Institute at St. Benedict’s Prep, a Truman Scholar, graduate of Swarthmore College and a Haitian immigrant.
The current discourse around immigration in America needs to change. Too often, the “American Dream” narrative has been used to portray immigrants as people seeking to flee their home countries to come to the United States in order to find jobs, safe housing and other vital resources for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, this narrative oversimplifies the immigrant experience and, worse, undermines the challenges that immigrants—black and brown immigrants, in particular—often face while living in America.
I recently articulated that, from my experience, being a Haitian immigrant in the United States has, at times, felt more like a burden than an opportunity. From having to come to terms with the political implications of the color of my skin to having to constantly resist the tendency to view myself as not being good enough to attain what I believed to be success—mainly gaining a quality education—in this country, living in the United States has forced me to undergo a series of internal battles. These battles, in addition to other social stressors that come with being an immigrant, have made certain stages in my life in the U.S. difficult to live through.
One of these stressors, as of late, has grown increasingly significant in my life: I have recently been led to question whether I should continue to discuss—rather than be silent about—the challenges that I encounter while being both black and an immigrant in the United States. This questioning is largely due to the pushback that I receive when I even attempt to describe these challenges that define much of my experience in America.
For instance, when I discuss the stress that sometimes follows my acute awareness of my being a racial minority in certain spaces, I repeatedly receive feedback, even if passive, that I am being regarded as a nuisance. In fact, when I recently mentioned that my immigrant experience can be an occasional burden, one response that I received was from someone who said that if I felt uncomfortable in this country, then I should “go back to your home.” I have heard similar kinds of dismissive responses before. I take issue with them, as they evince a kind of cruelty and lack of compassion to which immigrants are too often subjected to.
Considering the fact that the United States is very much my home (and has been for the past 14 years), I find that all comments that tell an immigrant to go back to “your” country are based on a presumption which contradicts reality. Specifically, when telling someone to go back to “their” country, the person making that comment effectively assumes a kind of power to dispose of anyone—an immigrant, in this case—who is somehow deemed unfit to be in the United States. This sort of assumed power is based on a sense of American exceptionalism, which unfortunately seems to have infiltrated the highest office in the land. Donald Trump’s most recent rhetoric towards immigrants of predominantly black and brown countries further corroborates this point.
By referring to my native country as a “shithole country,” Donald Trump was insinuating that Haiti, El Salvador and the countries of Africa are politically disposable. Furthermore, this kind of comment being uttered by the President of the United States only affirms the notion that in this country, immigrants—black and brown immigrants, in particular—are not regarded with enough compassion to be deemed worthy of a life without such verbal denigration being directed towards them or their home countries.
As previously mentioned, addressing this issue can often be seen as a complaint, which would ultimately dissuade potential immigrants from calling out this kind of wrongdoing. Thus, we should all take an active role in preserving the dignity of immigrants as well as empowering them to share their stories.
Practically speaking, taking on this responsibility would require more non-immigrants to publicly denounce the racially-charged disparagement of immigrants, to refrain from creating uncomfortable work environments for immigrants by engaging in denigrating behavior (like questioning immigrants’ qualifications) and to call out other non-immigrant contemporaries for subjecting black and brown immigrants to racist behavior or commentary. This burden should not be for immigrants to bear.
Now, I want to be clear and say that I do not believe that immigrants are emotionally weak, nor do I want to frame us as people who need constant protection from Donald Trump’s words (whether spoken or tweeted). Learning how to endure difficult situations in this country is often an inevitable factor of the immigrant experience in this country.
In fact, studies have shown that immigrants—of color, in particular—often develop a high level of resilience (through family support, cultural pride and other mechanisms), which weakens the impact of many of the social stressors that are incurred when one transitions from one country to another.
The issue, really, is that the existence of these social stressors has been normalized in this country. For instance, I have had to accept that in the United States, the recurring racially-charged disparagement that people of color—immigrants and non-immigrants alike—is so engrained in the very fabric of American society that the absence of such disparagement would be abnormal. I believe that this reality—among other social stressors that seem distinct to immigrants and other black and brown folk in this country—suggests a need for more compassion in this country as a whole.
Specifically, we need to care for one another enough to not disparage, disrespect or remain apathetic towards in any activity that purports to make immigrants—and members of other often-marginalized groups—feel uncomfortable.
As previously mentioned, a contributor to this lack of compassion in the United States is the dismissal—either overt or tacit—of immigrant voices. Thus, in order to counteract this reality, immigrants need to be availed of more platforms to speak their truth, their pain and their overall experiences like everyone else in this country. Doing this requires more than just a national reaction to the presidents’ comments. This issue lies beyond Trump’s words. Even when the struggles of many immigrants are not receiving the attention that they have been recently, the stories of immigrants need to be championed in the media, educational institutions ought to assume an affirmative responsibility to reflect immigrants’ dynamic perspectives—especially in their hiring process for educators—and people who can identify with the immigrant experience need to be availed of more opportunities to represent the immigrant perspective in various levels of government.
Immigrants of color, in particular, often find themselves in the vulnerable position where their intended home in America—which they value to the point of having risked their lives or at least their comfort for—does not always love them back. Treating immigrants with more compassion is the only way to solve this problem. Immigrants’ experiences are not to be dismissed as complaints, and disparaging comments or behavior towards us should not be regarded as normal, but as an assault to the American society that we should all be striving to build.