Donald Trump, England cricket champions, and the curse of the “immigrant” label

The label has become a prop used to demonise or lionise, which does little to capture the experiences of ethnic minority communities. 

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There is something underwhelming about being born a second-generation immigrant. You’re not the first generation, but the second, and you feel you didn’t really do much to earn the title.

Your parents fled or travelled to the country where you were born, sacrificed customs to adjust, faced the fear of being “first”. You, however, are not an “immigrant”. Your migration story is someone else’s, even if it is your mother’s or father’s, or both.

Yet the alternative, your identity on paper as a native-born citizen, isn’t the whole story either. If that’s the only box you're able to tick on a form, it somewhat erases your family’s history. 

This is the contradictory limbo that children and communities descended from migrants occupy. It’s a position exploited by racists and multiculturalists alike.

Yesterday, Donald Trump told four Democrat congresswomen to “go home” to the “crime-infested places from which they came”. Three were born and raised in the US, and the fourth moved to the US as a refugee when she was a child. All are women of colour.

Like many who discriminate against immigrants – and extend their bigotry to second generation immigrants, too – Trump is using their family history and skin colour to wrongly suggest that they are not American. That their home is elsewhere, and they should instead focus on the governments of countries where they have never lived.

The racist rhetoric impelling citizens to “go back to your own country” is used for native-born citizens as well as immigrants, particularly if they are not white.

Conversely, those who celebrate diversity and migration often do a similar thing, inadvertently diminishing people as citizens by amplifying their immigrant status, whether they be first generation or otherwise.

I noticed this in some reactions to England’s cricket world cup victory yesterday.

Championing the winning team against jingoistic sentiments like that of the Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – who wrote “we clearly don’t need Europe to win...” – a number of tweets went viral reading:

“Captained by an immigrant, batting led by an immigrant, fastest bowler an immigrant, leading all-rounder an immigrant, main spinner son of an immigrant.”

It is vital to show solidarity with people of migrant backgrounds, and indeed, England’s diverse team included players born in Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Barbados. There were also two players born in the UK whose parents and grandparents respectively migrated from Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

There is the tendency only to use the label “immigrant” to demonise or lionise. The term becomes a prop that does little to capture the experiences of second- or third-generation ethnic minority communities, who may suffer the same racism but aren’t narrated as plucky, heroic migrants-done-good, a story beloved by Americans and Brits.

In her new book, The Ungrateful Refugee, the writer and volunteer refugee worker Dina Nayeri argues against “educated people [who] continue to make the barbaric argument that open doors will benefit the host nation”, calling it a “colonialist” view. “Migrants don’t derive their value from their benefit to the Western-born and civilised people don’t ask for résumés from the edge of the grave.”

This perspective reminds me of when I interviewed a Syrian refugee living in Britain called Dima, who felt conflicted about the reports of talented refugees she kept seeing in newspapers and on television.

“I appreciate the positive coverage, people being portrayed as the successful individuals who made it – I understand that this is very much needed to change the perception,” she told me. “However, at the same time, it could be, in smaller communities, perceived as the norm, whereas it’s not the norm.”

Lumping all people of ethnic minority backgrounds into the category of “immigrant” misuses the term and ignores their nationality, even if it is for positive propaganda purposes. It seems they are damned if they did migrate, and damned if they didn’t.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.