I was recently at a pro-immigration rally in People’s Park, Tacoma. It was really just 50 people standing around a public park. There was a tent, and a local migration services organization had set up a series of speakers, the first of whom was a young woman named Catalina, likely in her mid-20s, who was undocumented.
She had gone to school through the federal Dreamer program and is now a practicing social worker. However, what stood out was not her triumph as a student, or the way staying in the U.S. had changed her life, or her ability to now give back to the community.
Rather, I was struck by the crushing weight that being a “perfect” immigrant had on her life. As the child of undocumented parents, any mistake was potentially life ruining.
A detention could mean the difference between a university education and illegal, low-paid domestic work. Her description of growing up under this pressure was haunting and eye-opening for the crowd.
What came next was equally haunting. The hosting organization had set up speeches from elected representatives. As a solid blue state, everyone from the local City Council to U.S. senators wanted a piece of the action.
Despite the plea from Catalina to recognize her as a person and not a stereotype, these politicians stuck to their talking points on immigration reform.
They praised the honest and hard-working nature of immigrants, citing them as the foundation of this country. According to the speeches, these individuals were deserving of citizenship, or even basic rights, because they were pillars of the community, the ideal citizen.
And here’s the thing: They’re not wrong. Often migrants must work harder just to make lesser wages. They frequently live farther from their workplaces and have longer commutes. They tend to place a higher emphasis on education for their children.
These are all well-known attributes of these individuals. But look at what idealistic language did to Catalina. The pressure that came from this language devastated the early part of her life.
So, like a good academic, I turned to theory. We know that something called the “model minority” exists and places undue pressure on its recipients. However, researchers in Canada have argued that the reason so few services exist for migrants is due to negative public perception regarding immigrants.
According to this research, if the public understood their contributions to the economy, community, and country, then more resources would seem like a good investment.
However, now we have too few resources and a crushing stereotype. Migrants must work longer and harder just to feel like they’re “allowed” to stay here.
But really, we’re all people. We all come home from work and put on sweatpants. We binge Netflix. We make mistakes.
I don’t actually know how to solve the tension between changing public opinion and the weight these perceptions may have on its subjects. But I do know that by placing the justification for citizenship on a pedestal, we are actually harming those we’re trying to help.
I should not be allowed to have a guilt-free Netflix binge just because I was born on the right side of a border. And fear of a detention should not ruin a future.
There must be a way to change public opinion without placing pressure on immigrants to consistently perform to the ideal.
Maggie Fesenmaier is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. She did much of her dissertation fieldwork in Tacoma.