FROM OUR SERIES, SPEAKING JUSTICE TO POWER: APLA / POLAR RESPOND TO THE TRUMP EXECUTIVE ORDER ON IMMIGRATION
As a naturalized U.S. citizen and as a scholar of migration, I consider Donald Trump’s executive order that indefinitely bars Syrian refugees, suspends refugee admission for 120 days, restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, and rescinds visas from over 60,000 people already in the U.S. discriminatory, xenophobic, counter-productive, heartless and destructive. The executive order was passed with no consideration given to the human side of things, to those whose lives are or will be deeply affected.
The chaotic way in which this order was carried out has created devastating problems for many individuals and their families. Last minute expulsions from flights, detentions in airports, cancelled visas, and heartbreaking separations are only part of it. Forcing refugees to return to a home they have fled and where their lives were threatened is dangerous and unconscionable. People’s lives are being torn apart at a time when they are already wounded and suffering. Students, researchers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children, people who had worked — or hoped to work and study — in the U.S. have been turned away, and countless others are no doubt rethinking their plans.
Donald Trump has enforced national borders according to his xenophobic and discriminatory vision of those who belong, defining Muslims as a homogenous “other” who constitute a threat, against an imagined notion of “Christian Americans.” As such, he has redefined citizenship and belonging to exclude those whose views differ from his own. He has rejected the very notion of the U.S. as a country of immigrants and its history of fighting for the belief that all people are created equal. His executive order harkens back to older Orientalist and colonial beliefs of Occidental superiority that serve to justify domination and ethnocentrism. It denies core American values founded on the notion of welcoming immigrants. Like Brexit, it assumes that closed doors create strength, whereas the opposite is true.
The silver lining to this executive order is the overwhelming and passionate response in opposition to it both internally and externally. My migrant worker friends in Hong Kong – among whom I have conducted research for decades – have shared messages of support saying they “stand with me” and that I must “be strong.” They have organized protests against Donald Trump and his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric in front of Hong Kong’s U.S. Consulate. These are precarious workers with precious little time off, but they are speaking truth to power. One poster I saw, with a photograph of Trump, reads “Make America Hate Again.”
Many of the migrant workers I know in Hong Kong are Indonesian Muslims. They have long fought against precarious conditions of migrant labor both locally and globally. They understand global capitalism and inequality, and they experience it as precarious, flexible, and disposable workers. They lack the benefits, protections, and the minimum wages of locals. They do housework, child care, elderly care, and other reproductive labor for their employers, but have no opportunity to become permanent residents or citizens. Yet they understand the value of global alliances better than most.
Eni Lestari, who has worked for over 15 years as a domestic worker in Hong Kong, and who is the Chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance HK (IMA), addressed the UN Assembly at the Summit on Refugees and Migrants on Sept. 19, 2016. As she said, “It is high time for governments to act together to effectively address the problems migrants face foremost of which should be the economic and political condition that forcibly displaces people, uproots them from the family and community, and makes them vulnerable to abuses and exploitation.” Lestari has spoken out powerfully against Trump’s executive order and seems to understand better than our policy makers, the value and power of global alliances.
While conducting research in Hong Kong, I also met African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Southeast Asian asylum seekers. Some were seeking better economic opportunities and some were fleeing torture and political violence. Some had seen family members killed and had fled because their lives were at risk. In Hong Kong, asylum seekers and refugees were not permitted to work, so they were forced to depend entirely on charity or to risk working illegally. They dreamt of resettling in countries like the U.S. where they imagined they would be welcome and could live as free, productive, and self-sufficient members of society. Many had suffered emotionally and physically, losing hope and self-esteem while they spent many years in limbo, waiting endlessly in a bureaucratic, asylum-seeking purgatory, hoping for the opportunity for resettlement. Those whose cases were rejected faced the terror of repatriation.
The global community of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, those of us who are naturalized U.S. citizens, and many others, oppose the redefinition of the U.S. as xenophobic, bigoted with religious intolerance, and devoid of generosity or kindness toward those who face violence and oppression in their homelands. Tolerance, freedom of expression, diversity and democracy are what my friends abroad once admired most about the U.S. Without those qualities, the U.S. risks losing its greatest strength and its global credibility. As my Hong Kong friends know, strength comes from opening doors and building alliances with others, not from excluding them. They also know how vitally important it is to stand up for equal rights, to struggle for social justice, to fight for labor rights, to value freedom, and to build global alliances.
Nicole Constable is Professor of Anthropology and Research Professor in the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author and editor of several books including: Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and ‘Mail Order’ Marriages; Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers; and Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor.