Meme Monday: Immigration Then and Now

Note: So it’s been a shamefully long time since I posted.  It has been a very busy month, but I’m planning to get back into blogging shape, and I figured I’d start by introducing a new, (hopefully) weekly blog series called Meme Monday.  Each Monday (or in the wee Tuesday morning hours), I will post a meme I feel is oversimplified or perpetuates injustice.  I will then show how the meme’s argument/theme may be more complex, unjust or incomplete.

Memes have a way of being short and sweet, and seem to demand the final word in a conversation or argument.  I hope to challenge that in this series, and promote education and dialogue by analyzing what I believe to be haphazard memes.  I hope you enjoy.  Feel free to comment and let me know what you think!

Meme of the Week:

13528670_10154285554235763_6427381654222143984_n When I came across this meme, I was instantly frustrated, in part because it romanticizes a particular people, time and event in history to give evidence to how awful people and circumstances have become.  It is an unoriginal, oversimplified and unrealistic method of argument. 

This particular meme implies people immigrating to the U.S (namely through Ellis Island pictured here) in the early 1900s are much better examples of “how immigrants should act.”  These immigrants apparently set the standard by working multiple jobs, learning English, respecting the flag, culture and laws of the U.S.  The implication being: if contemporary immigrants would just follow the golden example of those pictured, they would be treated with fairness and dignity.  Responsibility is placed solely on the immigrant, as if society itself bears no responsibility or control over how immigrants are treated, or the hardship they find in the U.S.

However, like most things, the reality of immigration in the early 1900s is a bit more complicated than implied here, so allow me to take this black and white picture and argument, and gray it up with the following points: 

1. Not all early 1900s immigrants were treated the same.  For example, those in first and second class were rarely required to pass through Ellis Island.  Instead they were allowed to go through a less extensive admittance process on the ship, while those in third class and steerage were ferried to Ellis Island, where they went through hours of extensive medical examinations and searches.  This is but one example of how poor immigrants faced greater stigmatization and hurtles than more wealthy ones.  A trend that continues today.

 

2. Immigrants in the 1900s faced discrimination too.  “Old Immigrants” or those from Southern and Western Europe were more readily accepted into the U.S and were seen as superior to the “new immigrants” coming from Eastern and Northern Europe.  When these Eastern and Northern immigrants began entering the U.S the fearful and discriminatory public called for greater regulations, including: quota laws, the Alien Contract Labor Law, and the institution of a literacy test for immigration.  Pretending immigrants like the ones pictured, were easily accepted, and acclimated in U.S society is to have selective amnesia to how poorly many immigrants were treated by the American public, and fails to see such poor treatment and harsh regulations in ourselves today.

 

3. Immigrants didn’t just respect American culture, they shaped it.  They helped create it, just as they continue to do today.  Our country would be drastically different if not for the influx of races, cultures and ethnicities of those who immigrated here.  Setting the economic benefits aside, immigrants make us stronger, more diverse, and more fully representative of what is to be part of a human race.

 

4. Some immigrants felt pressured to deny their culture and who they were.  Many who hid their culture and language did so to be respected.  This diminished the richness and diversity of cultures and identity.

This meme seems to commend cultural denial, and take pride in the “good old days” of conformity, when cultural pride/practice was squashed out of some (not all) immigrants.  But forcing self-denial and shame is not what this country should be about.  Denial of culture is a denial of self, and that should not be the U.S standard.

For example: I recently met a women whose parents immigrated from Russia.  As a child, she was forbidden to ever speak Russian and to this day mourns the piece of herself and her heritage she never connected to.  Similarly, a wise professor once told me she wished all white Americans of European decent would go to Ellis Island and mourn what they lost, mourn the roots they’ve become so disconnected from.  I believe if we as white folks, felt greater connection to our unique cultures, ethnicities and heritages, then we may feel less threatened when individuals of other races and ethnicities connect to and take pride in their culture and heritage.

 

5. “The American laws” this meme so proudly boasts about, really weren’t all that great.  The laws these romanticized immigrants of the 1900s followed permitted child labor, Jim Crow laws and denied women the right to vote.  Do we really want to go back to that time?  Do we really want to romanticize it, or hold people socially forced to conform to such laws as the standard?

 

6. The immigrants pictured, and the majority immigrating through Ellis Island were white.  It would be irresponsible to think race does not play a role in how immigrants are stigmatized today.  It is no coincidence the immigrants we are lifting up as the standard are white Europeans (though again, in the early 1900s some Europeans were considered inferior and non-white).  Today we tend to picture immigrants of the early 1900s as white, and contemporary immigrants as largely Hispanic/Latinx or from the Middle East.  Race is shaping how we view and compare these immigrants, and we need to be talking about that.

 

We must let go of this romanticized notion that the U.S was once a fair, accepting and equal place to all, especially immigrants.

This meme implies immigrants today should be thrilled to work multiple jobs (that likely won’t make ends meet anyway).  It implies they are all criminals, burning flags and destroying the U.S.  It implies they should be grateful, indebted members of society who do not make waves or speak up for themselves.  It implies challenging unfair laws and systems, and refusing to participate in borderline idol worship of the U.S flag is a sin.  When really, in an ever-changing country obsessed with “freedom,” seeking progress and greater freedom to be oneself is one of the most “American” things one can do.  

In reality, many people are nervous at the change immigrants bring, fearful it will hurt the economy and challenge a very white-washed U.S culture.  They are afraid immigrants won’t “melt” well, in the imaginary “melting pot” of U.S culture.  But we don’t need (nor have we ever truly been) a melting pot; a uniform society.  In such a society only a select few in power get to set the standard and make the rules.  That must not be who we are.

Instead of a melting pot, we should be a big pot of gumbo, with each ingredient, each member, proudly and fully themselves, while also unified in ways that fill out the dish, making it better. 

So lest we forget the struggles those pictured went through, trivializing them, or making their struggles seem necessary for success in the U.S, let us remember it didn’t have to be so hard for them.  Let us remember we have the chance, as a country, to treat immigrants better.  We have the opportunity, and responsibility to have open, honest, intentional conversations about this topic.

We have the opportunity to hold ourselves, and our capacity for hospitality, to a higher standard.

In Peace,
-sea

Resources: http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/ellis-island-history

 

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