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How American Immigrants Turn Anti-Immigration

A nation of immigrants means nothing if it turns its back on its own history. It’s a frightening reminder of how quickly empathy deteriorates

The British expression “I’m all right, Jack, pull up the ladder” — believed to have originated among Royal Navy sailors — perfectly encapsulates the half-life of human empathy. It was first used in a more literal sense, to notify the rest of the crew once a stranded sailor had gotten safely aboard the ship. But per Urban Dictionary, the expression — which assumes there are still more sailors in need of the ladder — has come to mean “I’m fine, screw everyone else.” It’s hard not to think about this idiom when wondering how a nation of immigrants can so quickly forget its own history — how, in short, there can be such a thing as an anti-immigration immigrant.

Generally speaking, immigrants in this country have never been so unified as they are right now, and yet there’s certainly a small minority defying the trend. One such man is David, a lawyer whose Russian Jewish parents emigrated to the U.S. out of fear of persecution from the then-Soviet Union. Though he was too young to remember the specifics of the journey, he tells me that he arrived to the U.S. in the late 1970s as an asylum seeker with his parents. “I was raised here [in the U.S.],” he explains. “My whole life, I grew up listening to my family talk about how lucky we were to be here. That’s very deeply ingrained into who I am. I think, for a lot of first-generation immigrants and people like myself who may have come over at a very young age, whether or not we saw what was before, we have a very visceral understanding of how lucky we are to be in a country where you’re free, and where you have freedom of opportunity.” 

Despite this respect for freedom and opportunity, David staunchly supports the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. The way he sees it, the situation that forced him and his family to emigrate to the U.S. is fundamentally different to the situation that’s bringing Latin-American immigrants to the U.S. border. “These people aren’t coming from a horrible, soul-crushingly evil place in Soviet Russia, they’re coming from democracy,” he tells me.

Arya, an insurance salesman in L.A. whose parents emigrated to the U.S. and requested asylum in the late 1970s, just before the Iranian Revolution, is another naturalized U.S. citizen who supports the president’s policies. His justification is similar to David’s. “My dad took the proper measures and went through the authorities and applied, filled out the forms, got our visas, got in here, got our applications,” Arya tells me. “So we went about it the proper way.” 

And last year, KPBS in San Diego reported on Paloma Zuniga, a Mexican-American dual citizen who pushes Trump’s agenda in Tijuana. “She’s been traveling to the shelters where the migrants are staying, and making Facebook Live videos accusing them of creating ‘chaos’ and ‘madness,’” the station reports. “She also accuses liberals of misleading the migrants into making the dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S.” Just last week, too, VICE produced a video as part of their Latin-X series reporting on Cuban exiles and their descendants, and more recently, Venezuelan refugees living in Miami who are embracing Trump’s stance on immigration, despite its profound impact on fellow Hispanics.

Again, to be clear, these are extremely rare cases: “I don’t think that we should try to glamorize them, because we’re at a time right now in public opinion polling data where immigrants have never been more unified,” says Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at UCLA and an expert on the policy debate around immigration reform. Still, as the son of two immigrants who understands that my immigrant parents stood on the shoulders of an entire history of emigration to the U.S., I’m struck by how quickly the empathy of this small number of naturalized citizens can corrode, particularly when it happens within the space of a single generation.

According to a recent study from Penn State University looking at why we ignore appeals to assist refugees, I shouldn’t be so surprised. “There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly,” lead author C. Daryl Cameron, a psychologist at Penn State University, told Pacific Standard. “But we found that people primarily just don’t want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.” 

Since it’s unlikely that anyone would admit they lack empathy, let alone because it requires effort, the justification instead becomes one of distinguishing personal experience as separate or different to the current cases. Essentially, by not confronting their personal connection to the immigration crisis, it’s easier for a naturalized citizen to steer clear of responsibility.

For David, his justification is founded on the belief that the migrants coming to the U.S. border couldn’t possibly be seeking asylum in the same way he and his family did, due to their home countries technically being democracies. Perfectly echoing the most recent addition to the president’s immigration policy, he tells me, “They’re leaving one democracy, traveling a thousand miles, going across at least one, and in some cases, two, three or four other democracies on the way to get here. It’s not lost to me that people want economic opportunity, I totally get that. I’m for a robust immigration policy that brings people to our country, but you have to do it legally.”

But as Neena Dutta, a corporate immigration lawyer in New York, points out, it’s ridiculous to suggest that these migrants are fleeing from a safe democracy. “You have to walk a mile in their shoes,” she says. “And I’ve got to tell you, not one of these women are coming here — and I say women because the detention centers I’ve worked with have been primarily [for] women and kids — for economic purposes. And even though there are some who will say [they’re coming to the U.S.] for economic purposes, you ask them a few more questions and they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, I got raped, but you know, everyone does.’”

According to Barreto, it’s not just a misunderstanding of the forces pushing immigrants and their families out of their own countries. There’s also a more insidious mental underpinning that precipitates the deterioration of empathy. “Social psychology research has found that, after a period of time — 20 years or so — immigrants may not have remembered the full specific details of their path and the way they [emigrated to the U.S.],” he says. “They may feel that these other immigrants are doing something wrong, and that if they went about it the right way, they would ‘make it’ too.” 

It’s this assimilation of that most toxic expression of American identity — a sort of twist on the odious conservative “bootstraps” narrative, one that glorifies struggle, but only those struggles they deem to be “valid” — that corrupts their potential for empathy. Clearly, even if immense hardship was the legal precedent by which migrants should be judged — and it is certainly not — to suggest that these migrants (many of whom have faced rape, kidnappings and gang violence during the thousands of miles they’ve trekked to the border) haven’t endured struggle is patently absurd. On paper, it may not look like they’re fleeing from “soul-crushingly evil” authoritarian regimes, but it should go without saying that if they’re willing to risk their lives for the slim chance of a better life, it’s probably not being driven by “economic opportunity.” 

Ironically, though, the very government policies designed to scare immigrant communities are increasingly pushing naturalized citizens to confront their own apathy. Barreto uses the passing of SB 1070, a 2010 Arizona measure nicknamed the “show me your papers” law, as an example of how immigrant communities have had their relationship with their own immigration history reinvigorated. As a result, those naturalized citizens who had been more conservative became increasingly sympathetic towards their fellow immigrants. 

This state law, according to Barreto, made it a crime for an immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents. Basically, SB 1070 gives state law enforcement officers carte blanche to proceed with a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” upon reasonable suspicion that an individual is an illegal immigrant. In practice, then, it amounts to little more than racial profiling. “When the law went into effect and they [immigrants] started getting racially profiled, it really pissed them off,” says Barreto. “So within about four years of that law being in effect, you saw a lot of conservative, even Republican-identifying immigrants who were saying things like, ‘I didn’t used to see myself wrapped up in this, but now, if I’m somewhere and I’m speaking in an accent, suddenly a Maricopa County sheriff officer comes up to me and says, “Hey, can you prove that you’re an American citizen? Because if you’re not, you’re coming with me.”’”

Barreto adds that the main issue boils down to whether or not the immigrant-turned-naturalized-citizen feels a connection to the experience of Central American migrants kept in detention centers at the border right now. “The more that the migrant has a story of working their way up from lesser opportunity, the more they can see themselves related to lots of others,” he says. “We actually see that in a high number of Cuban-Americans. Cubans tend to be fairly conservative and more likely to be Republican because of their origin story, but they have a very high level of connection to the Central American migrants because they do see them as trying to flee from violence and destitute status. And when the Central Americans are framed as asylum seekers, we usually see Cubans saying, ‘Oh yeah, they should definitely have a right to do that.’” 

To his point, David tells me that he’s completely in support of the “right type of immigrant” coming to the U.S. in an “essentially lawful manner” (a rationalization that ignores the fact that many of the migrants held in detention at the border are indeed attempting to gain entry via the legal immigration channel that brings migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to the U.S.). He also makes an exception for “legitimate refugees that are fleeing radical oppression,” who he believes have a “lawful reason” to come to the U.S. “The Vietnamese boat people are a tremendous example of that,” he continues. “But that’s a different thing than what we’re seeing today. Those people were fleeing political crimes. [They were] fleeing from a tyrannical regime, which is a little different.”

Barreto tells me that it’s precisely this sentiment fueling the high levels of conservative support for migrants fleeing the Maduro regime — a fully entrenched dictatorship — in Venezuela. “A lot of it is about how they’re framed,” he says. “And again, that gets back to whether it’s a migrant or a Midwestern suburban housewife, whether or not they feel any sort of empathy or relatability for that person’s story. The more that they do, the more likely they’re inclined to show that empathy. The less that they do, the more they might retreat or withdraw from that.” 

Barreto adds that the way the language is framed can have severe consequences for how much we empathize with migrants. “The media, and the language that these folks that you’re talking to tune into, very, very much colors the way that they view this,” he says. “So if you hear a lot of Fox News discussion that’s very negative about the migrants, then you’re likely to believe that. Whereas if you’re watching PBS or something else that might describe them more neutrally or even more empathetically, you’d have a totally different belief.”

So for the folks insisting that the ladder be pulled up — including the ones who’ve only just climbed the ladder and boarded the ship safely themselves — it all comes down to how closely they see themselves in the eyes of the person desperately waiting in line to climb the ladder next. But if an entire nation of immigrants continues to ignore the connective tissue that ties together their personal immigration story to that of their fellow humans seeking help and sanctuary at the border, we may never rescue the collective empathy required to fix the problem from the depths of apathy. As a result, the whole damn ship is going to sink.