We Shouldn’t Need to be “Successful” to Belong

09/25/2017 12:20 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2017

I recently had a conversation with my friend Emina Ćerimović, a brilliant researcher in the Disability Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Emina, who is also an expert on issues of discrimination and migration, was reflecting on why it is that refugees—who have been forced to flee their homelands—are so often expected to be “successful” in their adoptive society, in order to be legitimized and embraced.

This phenomenon extends to immigrant populations, too.

Even as some people are quick to take a single negative story and extrapolate it to the whole (Exhibit A: Donald Trump, alleging that Mexican immigrants are rapists), they are less inclined to let a positive story have a wide-reaching halo effect. The burden is on newcomers to prove themselves, one-by-one, against a collective stereotype—a burden not imposed on native-born citizens, who are automatically presumed to “belong.”

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—the executive branch program that allows 800,000 young adults who grew up in the United States to stay there. Earlier this year, when President Donald Trump threatened to end DACA and begin deporting young people who had entrusted the federal government with their personal information and hopes for the future, most of the public rightly reacted with shock and horror.

Soon, stories of some of these young people, known as DREAMers, began showing up in the press. We’ve learned about people like Edwin Ordoñez, who swam with his father across the Rio Grande when he was only nine. Nine years of hard work later, Edwin was crowned valedictorian of his high school, and is now a student at Princeton. As a teenager, Julissa Arce overstayed her tourist visa from Mexico. She went on to become a Vice-President at Goldman Sachs at 27. Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra’s mother brought him to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was eleven. He went on to graduate from Amherst College summa cum laude, and received two master’s degrees through the prestigious Gates Cambridge and Schwarzman Scholarship programs. He now says he feels “an inconsolable desire to contribute to the country that has given me so much.”

Such exemplary accounts are meant to show how DREAMers can be model citizens, and to illustrate how wrong it would be to expel them from the country. It’s impossible not to be inspired by these young adults’ talent, drive, and achievement—and the hope, of course, is that we would extrapolate their “successes” to others as well.

But I find myself wondering if, in spotlighting such stories, we reinforce the counter-narrative, too. Do we risk implying that young people like Edwin, Julissa, and Carlos deserve to stay in the United States only because they’ve “succeeded”—as defined by a particular set of values? Why can’t someone’s “success” also be defined as being a good neighbor, a good son or daughter, a good colleague, a good friend? And, more fundamentally, why should any of those measures be required to prove that someone belongs?

To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to diminish these young adults’ impressive accomplishments. I also understand the logic in making high-flyers the DACA program’s “poster children.” It is easier for the public to relate to policy debates when there are faces and names attached, and talented young adults like these are obviously attractive choices.

But we should at least be attuned to the risk of overweighting traditional measures of success; and of overlooking less quantifiable qualities, like honesty, integrity, decency, kindness, a strong work ethic, support for one’s family and community, and so on. It is often those less quantifiable qualities that underpin our societies at their best, whereas we all know people with fancy credentials and terrible characters (Exhibit B: Donald Trump, alleging that Mexican immigrants are rapists).

One troubling aspect of DACA already tilts in that direction: To be eligible, you need to be in school or have a high school degree or a GED—a requirement that, according to a 2014 study by the Migration Policy Institute, excludes some 398,000 young people. The same study found that even those who do graduate from high school face challenges in obtaining higher education, noting, “54 percent of the overall U.S. population ages 15-32 had some college experience versus 36 percent of those immediately eligible for DACA.”

Of course, that’s partly because of the many obstacles young DREAMers face. More often than not, they grow up in low-income households and communities—and, due to their status, can’t even apply for financial aid. There’s also the traumatic impact of what Harvard sociologist Roberto Gonzales calls the “transition to illegality.” Once DREAMers reach their final years of secondary school, they can become disoriented and lose motivation—a result of being forced “from protected to unprotected status, from inclusion to exclusion, and from de facto legal to illegal.”

It breaks my heart when I think of these young people, giving up on their hopes, their potential, and their dreams, because of an unfair government designation. They belong in the United States because they are human beings who have called that country home for as long as they can remember. That should be enough.

This lesson goes beyond DREAMers—and beyond the United States. It’s a lesson we should all take to heart, especially today. When we legitimize and privilege just the people we relate to, people who remind us of ourselves, or people with achievements that we value, we turn everyone else into an “other”; and once someone has been “other-ed,” they can be viewed as “less-than,” which is not only wrong but dangerous.

On a wall inside the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. are the words of the German pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It isn’t hard to reimagine Niemöller’s message in today’s divisive context. Instead of Socialists and Trade Unionists, we might swap in immigrants, refugees, transgender individuals, people of color, Muslims, or any number of other groups too often targeted as a collective—including Jews, who remain in the crosshairs of bigotry and bias.

All of us have an obligation to stand up for those who need our support—and to value them simply for being who they are, just as we wish to be valued ourselves.

After all, as writer Benjamin Zephaniah notes in his powerful poem, “We Refugees”:

We all came from refugees

Nobody simply just appeared

Nobody’s here without a struggle

And why should we live in fear

Of the weather or the troubles?

We all came here from somewhere.

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