By Sasha Rivera ’19
According to the Center for American Progress, about 43.3 million foreign-born people live in the United States. Low-income immigrant households rely less on government aid programs, with only 9.3 percent of these families receiving income from Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in comparison to 15 percent of US-born households. FBI data and a study from the Cato Institute indicated that immigrants have significantly lower crime and incarceration rates as well. Economically, they added two trillion dollars in 2016 to US GDP, 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and their children, and across three generations, the net contribution of immigrants to state and local budgets has been 900 dollars per person. Despite the positive impacts immigrants have had on the US, they still face hardship and discrimination, especially with the Trump presidency. Additionally, race and ethnicity also majorly impact the way certain immigrants are treated. A white man from France, for example, will have a very different experience from a Mexican woman.
While all immigrants undergo unique difficulties when coming to the US and have to adjust to a different culture, it is important to recognize how things like racism or islamophobia affect their experiences. To further explore this issue, I interviewed other students from a variety of backgrounds who had at least one parent that was a first-generation immigrant. I became interested in this subject because my mother is from Russia and has been living in California since 1996 after marrying my dad. She did of course struggle with assimilating into American culture, being a mother, and being away from her entire family. However, she was overall treated quite positively by the people she met and was not discriminated against for just being Russian.
When people would hear my mother’s accent or her speaking Russian to me, their reactions would be ones of fascination and excitement, asking her what country she’s from and talking about how their relative recently went to Moscow and loved it. In one incident in Target, a woman praised my mom for teaching me Russian at a young age, and then went on to shame her kindergarten students for having parents who spoke little English and primarily Spanish at home. As for me, the worst I’ve ever experienced for being half-Russian is the occasional fetishization and being asked a couple times if my mom was a mail-order bride. Those situations were uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
Alyssa Rowshan, a Scripps College first year, described the difficulties her Iranian father has faced in the US. From having his accent mocked to having to take on a more “American” name in professional settings, her father has been treated negatively as an immigrant. She stated that she wished she could take pride in her culture without being labeled as a terrorist. Rowshan said,
“For two months [after 9/11], my father could not take me or my sister to school, the park, etc because he was so afraid of being physically beaten or murdered in front of us due to the rise in hate crimes caused by unwarranted backlash against middle eastern and Muslim individuals. The rise in xenophobic and racist sentiment under our current president also stands out in terms of his experience. On a systematic level, the Muslim Ban instated by Trump had a large impact on my family, as my aunt and uncle have one son with US citizenship and one who was drafted into the Iranian Army and is therefore unable to leave. These racist policies have undoubtedly affected the way individual middle eastern immigrants are treated. Recently, while just walking our dogs, my father was physically threatened and told to ‘go back where he came from’ by one of our neighbors.”
Sohni Kaur, another Scripps first year, detailed the experiences of her parents, who both came from India, with racism and discrimination. She said that even though they don’t get a lot of trouble nowadays because they do not have very distinct accents, her father will still get strange looks when he wears his turban. In one instance, one of her father’s patients even joked about him being in the Taliban due to his turban. Kaur described a particularly disturbing incident that her mother underwent: “Once one of my mom’s patients refused to share his entire patient history with my mom and demanded to see her supervisor, who happened to be an African-American man, and then told one of the nurses ‘First an Asian woman, and now a black doctor? Am I in America anymore?’ My mom’s incident happened when she was finishing up her fellowship in Alabama.”
Kaur also added in her personal experiences.
“I haven’t been treated that bad as a child of an immigrant, because I grew up in a fairly liberal area. But I still get nervous any time we go through TSA at the airport or if I see anyone looking intently in our direction. Also when I was in elementary school, my friends would tell me my lunch looked or smelled weird whenever I brought food my mom made.”
Isaiah Twolands, a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College, also spoke about the experiences of his parents, who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He described situations where his parents were assumed to be unintelligent due to their immigration status, despite their degrees and medical professions. He also explained that,
“What is the probably the most notably, consistently prevalent thing that relates to my parents being immigrants is how people react when they hear their accents. They are so quick to ask my parents where they are from and view them as representative of their country or they tell my parents some irrelevant detail to show how they almost have some personal stake in the country as well. This definitely comes across as a colonial ‘Look, I am taking part in your culture just as you are taking part in mine!’ as though my parents aren’t Americans citizens, they are some exotic and therefore only to be interacted with from a position of ignorant intrigue, and whatever detail they brought up is equivalent to the daily cultural shifts my parents navigate/to the vast expanse of the culture of my parents country.”
Twolands also elaborated on the specific difficulties his parents face for being African immigrants: “It plays upon an interesting dichotomy because they are African-American (as opposed to Black-American) so at first glance people may have a certain set of banal beliefs and stereotypes associated with them, but when they realize they are also immigrants from Central Africa, there’s immediately another set of preconceived notions put along with that. Sometimes even favorable treatment by people of different ethnic backgrounds has a dehumanizing, negative effect because they are not seeing my parents as their unique, individualistic selves, but rather as their background and their culture.”
He also described the phenomenon of existing in two cultural worlds as a child of immigrants. Despite being born in America, only visiting his home country once, and not speaking his parents’ native language, Twolands stated that his home life and daily customs “…differ greatly from that of most Black-American households, so I spent much of my formative years trying to bridge that gap and figure out where I fall within it. Also, of course kids at school when you’re young are going to make fun of you for being different…I do believe that those years of figuring out how my background constitutes who I am helped me figure out who I want to be in.”
Through these interviews, one can see the nuance and variation in immigrant experiences. While immigrants from Europe and Slavic countries are glorified and embraced—despite the occasional fetishization, immigrants of color face deeper struggles and dangers due to factors like racism and islamophobia. The situations of these immigrants’ children are also unique because of the challenges that come with living multiple cultures at once. Therefore, it is necessary to keep these things in mind when discussing the treatment of immigrants in the US.
Image courtesy of Sohni Kaur